The last knot of people waved goodbye at the edge of the makeshift airfield, grinning and clutching their autographs tight. Casey waved back until they were too small to see. Then she patted the side of the trailer, smiling up at the stowed mechs. The smile changed to a frown. Jolene had landed her mech with its grasping units — which Casey would always think of as hands–framing its cockpit, the opposable flexors set in an unmistakable “thumbs up” pose. The glass bubble of the cockpit stared down at Casey in bland mockery.
A mech could take an artillery round to the chest, but if the hands were open, one rainstorm could short out the delicate joints of the grasping units. And since Casey had set the security features to maximum for the summer, the PEAV’s neural interface would only recognize Jolene’s brain patterns. If Jolene didn’t climb up in the rig and stow the damn thing properly, the PEAV would thumbs-up the world all night long.
Casey spent several minutes cleaning up empty water bottles and popcorn boxes before fury ebbed enough to cross the field to the tent site. The glowing tip of Jolene’s joint served as a beacon, calling Casey through the evening gloom.
Jolene lay on a sheet spread beside side of the tent, naked, smoking, staring up at the clouds sculling across the darkening sky. Casey threw herself down beside her. She knew this mood, an ugly hybrid of anger and depression. The moods had been infrequent when she and Jolie first started building the show, two chicks brought together by the VA Benefits Office waiting room and the same taste in beer. These days, the moods were as regular as popcorn sales.
Casey pushed herself up on one elbow. “You could help clean, you know. We want to be able to use this field next summer.”
Jolene inhaled and held the smoke deep inside her. She was still beautiful to Casey, despite the long white scar running up her hip, her ribs, into her armpit. Despite the strange square shape of her reconstructed collarbone and the white plastic socket jutting out of her chest, which allowed easy recharge of her replacement heart. Even broken, Jolene was the perfect shape of woman.
Smoke trickled from her nose. “There won’t be a next summer.”
“No. I can’t do it anymore. Every day on the road, nights in a tent–I can’t take that anymore. I hurt. And watching all those assholes stare at me is like cutting out my heart all over again.”
Meeting you every summer is like cutting out my heart again, Casey thought. But she didn’t say it. It wasn’t anything Jolene could understand. She fucked men, and women were invisible to her. Friendship sometimes seemed like a strong word for what she and Casey had; they were business partners, plain and simple. Co-workers.
But she was going to have to convince Jolene to stick out the last of the season. Just for business. There was money to recoup, fields and big air shows already confirmed. Casey put on her sweetest expression.
“It’s hard, I know. You’re a combat veteran with multiple decorations, not a vaudeville actress. But just think about all the joy you’re bringing these people. They’re tied to their farms, they can’t travel. Our show is the best thing they’ve seen since the Reconstruction began.” She sat up, smiling benignly. “You’re making a difference, Jolie.”
Jolene sucked back half an inch of joint in one sharp inhalation. She shook her head while the smoke seared into her lungs. The combat docs on Mars had done the best they could, but even five follow-up surgeries had done nothing for Jolie’s chronic pain. She woke up screaming sometimes. Casey had rocked her to sleep more than she could count.
Casey pressed on. Jolene’s face was hard and cold now, but tomorrow she’d feel different. She always did. “Just stay till Wichita. We’ve got a recruiter coming to the show. He’s got the first half of our summer paycheck.”
“Recruiters. I can’t believe we’re helping the Air Force hire more grunts. These farm kids look up at our fancy machines and they think PEAVs are all pink smoke and synchronized dance. They forget the damn things aren’t toys. They’re Power-Enhanced Armor-Vehicles. Armor, Casey.”
Casey knew that if she didn’t stop Jolene now, she’d work herself up into a full-on screaming rage. The Air Force took her collarbone. The Air Force took her heart. The Air Force took her mother-fucking husband and she didn’t even get to bury his body. Casey had heard it a lot the last few weeks. She suspected something had happened to Jolene this winter, because for the first time, the bad shit could no longer be contained by medical marijuana and two hours a day in the cockpit, flying free.
So she stole the joint from Jolene’s fingers and sucked down a long drag of it, letting the grin spread wide and crooked across her face. “Fuck that shit. Let’s go get drunk.”
It was the right thing to say. The vitriol hung in Jolene’s eyes a second and then a smile appeared on her own face, growing dimples. “If they’ve got more than near-beer in this shit-hole town.”
Casey pushed herself to her feet and offered Jolene her hand. “Only one way to find out.”
They walked into town. It would have taken too much effort to unhitch the mechs’ trailer from the truck, and with any luck they’d be in no shape to drive after a couple of hours. Town lay about a mile and a half down the gravel road. Once there’d been pavement, but there wasn’t enough oil left in the world to justify asphalt these days.
Casey kept her arm around Jolene’s waist as they walked, but they didn’t talk. Casey let her mind play over the time before Reconstruction. She couldn’t remember it too well, she’d been so young. There was oil, and then there wasn’t. There were suburbs, and then there weren’t. As a kid, her parents had lived in a west coast city with a symphony and a dozen libraries and jobs that ran off computers. Her memories of her childhood were scattered and few, rattling around in a mental box that kept them smelling like Christmas and her mother’s perfume. They’d gone to the Nutcracker every year. She’d never forget the stiff velvet of the dresses her mother bought her to wear at the performances.
But then, the Reconstruction. They’d been relocated to a government farm not that different from these ones. Casey wanted to pause and lean on a fencepost beside the road, take a moment and study the crops. She’d learned how to test soil by placing it on her tongue, learning the mineral contents by their flavors. The neighbor had taught her how to fix tractors at the same time he taught her father.
It was Jolene who stopped, staring at a red rag fluttering on the strand of barbed wire. “That’s where they’ll start tomorrow morning,” she murmured. “When they come out to finish checking the fence line.”
She started walking again, faster, and Casey had to jog a step to catch up with her.
“I spent a summer fixing fences,” Jolene muttered.
“I thought you grew up in Chicago.”
“They sent kids out to the farms every summer. ‘Everybody has to pitch in for the agricultural effort!'” She kicked a stone and they both watched it soar ahead of them. “Fucking hated that farm shit.”
Casey would have answered, but a pickup truck roared past, the teenagers in the back whooping and catcalling as they shot by. Casey thought she recognized them from the air show, a knot of sullen kids who’d passed a joint in the back of the field. But that was what teenagers did out here, she knew–there was nothing else for them. Drugs, and fucking, and getting dirt under their nails. Less than one percent had a chance at college under Reconstructionist policy.
She felt lucky then. She smiled at Jolene. “Aren’t you glad the GI Bill pays for school? I sure as hell wasn’t cut out to work on a farm.”
Jolene gave her a sideways look. She was in her second year of graduate school, gearing up to write a thesis on particle physics. Casey knew Jolene looked down on Casey’s job teaching welding at a community college. She tried not to give a shit.
They passed into the center of town. Neon lights called them from the end of the block: Coors. Budweiser. Miller. Casey hoped there was tequila. They passed a grocery store on their right and an electrical recharge shop on the left, the shop advertising automotive repair and the cheapest battery jumps in a two hundred mile radius. Casey made a note–the truck could use a charge if they were going to make it to the next town south. If she could convince Jolene they should go to the next town.
The teenagers had parked their truck in front of the automotive shop, and their laughter sounded hard and bright as the two vets passed the place. A girl came out of the shop, so blond and tall that Casey caught herself looking back over her shoulder as she walked past. She was as pretty as Jolene, and that was saying something.
Jolene tugged on Casey’s arm. “I see an Absolut sign in the window.”
The prospect of hard liquor drove the girl out of Casey’s mind. She broke into a little jog and tugged open the door. She held it for Jolene, waving her in.
Country music billowed out on a wash of warm air ripe with the funk of spilled beer. Casey hesitated, but Jolene was already inside, headed straight for the dimly lit bar. A couple of flickering fluorescent tubes lit up the taps and single shelf of hard liquor. The rest of the place hid itself in darkness.
Jolene leaned over the bar to deliver her order. She’d worn her costume into town, the black shorts and white tanktop, revealing muscles still sculpted and strong. For a second Casey could imagine her on a Martian base, playing cards with the other aces in their wife-beaters, all ease and grins until their radio implants called them out to the flight deck. It hadn’t been like that on Luna. The Chinese had mostly given up on the moon by the time Casey signed up. The good stuff, the rare earth elements and metal ores, were all bound up on Mars and in the asteroid belt. Earth’s dirt was mostly played out, worth more for crops than minerals.
She shook off the stupor of memory and surmise, hurrying to join Jolene while there was still a second shot glass on the table. She gave it a sniff. “What the hell is this shit?”
Jolene grinned. “Grain liquor. Half the price of vodka and cut with ascorbic acid and salt. The bartender swears it tastes just like tequila with lime.”
Casey knocked it back. Who was she to argue? She hadn’t seen a lime since she was ten years old.
A man in a ball cap made his way out of the darkness. “Next round is on me. You ladies sure know how to put on a show.” Beside him, his buddy in a cowboy hat bobbed his head in agreement.
“Thanks.” Casey knew it was her job to talk to him, to put on a smile.
The bartender appeared with two more shot glasses, and Ball Cap slid one down to Jolene. He offered the second to Casey, his fingers touching hers. “And you’re a real nice-looking lady.” He leaned in a little closer. “At least when you’ve got that skull jack covered up. A man don’t like to be reminded his lady fought the Chinks.”
Jolene knocked back her shot. “Thanks for the drinks. You gents play pool?” She caught the bartender’s eye. “Keep the shots coming to the pool table.”
She looked back over her shoulder at Casey and the men, her pupils huge from dim light and THC. “Any of you got any change?”
Casey rolled her eyes and hurried to catch up with Jolene, catching her elbow and pulling her ear into whispering distance. “Really? Pool? These guys are walking sacks of manure.”
“Just trying to have fun,” Jolene cooed. She slipped her fingers into Casey’s hip pocket and worked free a quarter. “Look what I found!”
“Just one game,” Casey warned. She didn’t like it when Jolene let her hormones think for her. Didn’t trust things to stay safe in this dirty corner of nowhere. She snatched the coin out of Jolene’s fingers and made her way to the pool table. It was dark enough in this corner of the room that Casey had to feel her way down the side of the table, fumbling her quarter into the slot. The single fluorescent bulb strung above the table flickered on, and the balls rattled down the chute.
“Who’s ready to have their ass handed to them?” Jolene put on hand on her hip and studied the farm boys. “I’ve never lost a game … on this planet anyway.”
“Sounds like quite the claim.” Cowboy Hat leaned across her to reach the pool cues, but Jolene’s smile was fixed on Ball Cap.
Casey thought of the way he’d pushed his fingers against hers when he passed her the shot glass, and she knew exactly what Jolene was doing. Every show, she said she hated to be watched, but out of the cockpit, Jolene hated it when anyone else got the attention. Casey shook her head as she racked up the balls.
Ball Cap and Cowboy Hat exchanged glances.
“May the best man win!” Ball Cap announced.
The door to the bar slammed open and the kids from the red pickup truck piled inside. Their leader, a good-looking boy with his arm slung around the beautiful blond from the automotive station, muscled his way to the bar. Casey was disappointed to see the bartender pass them three cases of beer. But that was life in a small town, she remembered. It was easier to take the money and look the other way than deal with troubles that you couldn’t walk away from.
Or maybe it was just sympathy. Since the oil ran dry and the power got rationed, there wasn’t nearly enough for kids to do, and with the agricultural workers’ quotas, it wasn’t like these kids had futures to look forward to. Just dust, and wheat, and nights in a bar like this for the rest of their lives. A beer and a blond was the best that good-looking boy could expect from the world.
When the bartender laid a row of shot glasses down on the pool table, Casey was the first to reach for one.
Casey and Jolie had a rule on the road: don’t fuck the rubes. Jolene had slipped up in four other towns, and every time she’d come out of it with bruises and cops breathing down their neck. One of those towns, C & J Air Show was still banned from performing. So when Jolene put Ball Cap’s hands on her hips and wiggled her ass against his thighs as she lined up her shot, Casey knew it was time to get out. They’d played three games of pool and the table was lined with shot glasses.
“Soon as you finish this game, Jolie, we should wrap it up. Long drive tomorrow, remember?” Casey said it with a smile, but Jolene just shot her a glare.
“I’m not going anywhere tomorrow, remember, Casey? Because I quit your stupid show. Remember?”
Ball Cap laughed. He’d introduced himself some time, but Casey’d forgotten it four or five drinks ago. She could feel a burning in her belly, and was glad she’d stopped putting back the rotgut. A hangover was worse after a night sleeping on the ground.
She slipped her cue back into the rack. Now Jolene was whispering something in Cowboy Hat’s ear, pressing his hand against her tit. Casey shook her head in disgust.
“Hey, you been flirting with me all night. What the shit’s going on?” Ball Cap’s face was red and twisted ugly.
Jolie giggled. He put his hand out to grab her shirt, but misjudged and closed his fist on air.
Casey stepped between the two. “She’s drunk. She gets real dumb when she’s drunk.” She dug her fingers in Jolie’s bicep. “Come on, Jolie, we’ve done enough damage here.”
“But I feel terrific.” Jolene wobbled a second and then settled her head on Casey’s shoulder.
Ball Cap pulled back his fist. “You two dykes? Think it’s funny coming on to men and leaving them worked up?”
Casey felt ice knot around the booze in her gut. She had a knife in her boot, but she wanted a gun. Hell, she wanted her mech.
Cowboy Hat snorted. “Aww, shit, Bruce. She wasn’t into you. I was the one gonna take her home.”
Then Jolene’s legs went out from under her, and Casey just managed to catch her by the elbows, and she wished like hell she’d already paid the bar tab and could run out of this dark and muggy place before something horrible happened.
“Ain’t worth wasting your time now,” Cowboy Hat laughed. “That girl’s passed out.”
Casey didn’t say a word as she started backing out of the bar, Jolie’s heels bouncing on the bumps and cracks in the worn floor. She slipped her arm around Jolie’s middle so she had a free hand to find the last of their money in her pocket. She dropped a hundred dollar bill on the counter and didn’t bother waiting for her change.
Her stomach loosened a little as the door closed behind them.
Out on the front step, a little breeze ruffled the strands that had come loose of Casey’s braid. She closed her eyes to work up the energy to drag Jolie onto her feet. The breeze felt cool and sweet after the bar’s closeness, and her head felt pleasantly light. It could have been a good night if Jolene hadn’t fucked up back there.
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
Casey pivoted Jolene with reflexes sharp despite the alcohol. She hadn’t dealt with a puker since her first tour of duty, but some skills are never lost. She breathed shallowly through her mouth while Jolene emptied a pint or two of pseudo-tequila all over the bar’s siding.
Jolene coughed and retched again. She gave a whimper and took a few steps away from the mess, wobbling a little before thumping down on her ass in the thick dust. Her shoulders shook, and it took Casey a second to realize she was crying.
She squatted beside Jolene, rubbing her back.
“I’m sorry.” Jolie heaved between her knees, but there was nothing left to come up. “That was stupid.”
“Oh fuck, Casey, I don’t know what to do.” She spat over her shoulder and wiped her face on her arm. “The VA says they’re canceling my funds. They say the national allotment of graduate students has been exceeded, and they’re cutting money devoted to the theoretical programs.”
Casey sank onto her butt. “Shit.”
“They say I can reapply next year. But I’ll have to take a year off from school while I wait for the bullshit paperwork to clear. What the hell am I going to do for a year, Casey? I can’t stay at the university without money!”
Casey pressed her cheek against Jolene’s shoulder. She didn’t have an answer. But Jolene’s moods this summer finally made sense.
“They say they’re upping the agricultural workers quota. Gonna make me work on a farm.” She leaned her head against Casey’s and choked off a sob.
And then they heard it. Maybe there’d been other sounds when they’d stumbled out of the bar, but the sound of a girl shrieking “Leave me alone!” finally penetrated the haze of booze and unhappiness.
Jolene went stiff. Casey found herself reaching for the sidearm she no longer carried. Adrenaline replaced alcohol, and they jumped to their feet, running toward the sound.
It had come from the automotive shop. Casey thought of the pickup truck full of teenagers, stupid and now drunk and probably stoned out of their brains, and her heart raced even as her training kicked in. She ran to the left, Jolene to the right, their boots quiet on the gravel road. Running lightly. Taking their weapons from their boot tops. Civilians might be forbidden firearms, but that didn’t mean they were stupid enough to travel without weaponry.
Casey shifted her switchblade to her left hand and her brass knuckles to her right. The red pickup still sat at the charging station, and bent over its hood she could see the beautiful blond, pinned down by the good-looking boy with his hand wriggling beneath her t-shirt. The girl wriggled, and the boy slapped her with his free hand.
“Stop being such a bitch, Mel.”
There were other sounds, giggles from the back of the red pickup, crickets in the distant fields, her own breathing, but they disappeared in the tidal surge of Casey’s rage.
He turned around at the sound of her snarl.
She reached the boy at the same time as Jolene. Their fists took parallel paths into his face, side-by-side explosions of teeth and spit and blood. They didn’t bother with the switchblades. He wasn’t that much bigger than either of them.
Jolene lashed out with her boot, toppling him. There were no sounds from the pickup truck anymore. The sound of his whimpers were that much louder.
Jolene stepped down onto his gut, pinning him in place. She held the blond girl’s gaze. “You want a shot at him?” They were surrounded by a knot of staring teenagers, but Jolene didn’t spare them a glance.
The girl stared down at him. He clutched his face, already puffy even in the faint phosphor glow of the station’s nighttime lighting. Her lips twisted. “Hell yeah.”
She kicked him in the ribs, twice. “I told you leave me alone!” She kicked him again. When she looked up, her eyes were bright and her nose ran snot down her lip. She wasn’t crying. She was keeping it in. “How many times did I have to ask him to just leave me alone?”
The girl swiped at the snot and left streaks of grease across her face. It hit Casey then: the grease-black hands, the stained rag stuffed in her back pocket, the faded and holey clothes. She worked at the automotive shop. She was the girl Casey had been at eighteen, but thin and beautiful, not awkward and stocky.
Casey’s heart twisted for the girl. She stretched out a hand to her, squeezed her shoulder. “You going to be okay?”
The girl nodded. “I think so.” She wiped her nose on the back of her hand again. “At least he’ll have some tender targets for me to aim at the next time.”
She sounded resigned to the idea of a next time. And in a place like this, flat and boring and short on anything beautiful, it was probably only a matter of time until there was. Casey thought of Ball Cap, back in the bar, and felt lucky that kind of next time hadn’t happened to her or Jolie.
She reached for some kind of advice, something she could tell the girl that would protect her or help her in any way. “Be careful,” she finally said. She wanted to say come with us. She wanted to say I’ll save you. But there was no way to say it.
Jolene kicked the boy in the ass as she turned away, and Casey knew it was time to get out of town. The kids were starting to whisper now, and two of the boys were kneeling next to their buddy. Casey gave the girl an awkward wave and followed Jolene back to the main road. The dust seemed drier and thicker than it had when they’d first come into town.
They made it almost a hundred yards before the girl shouted at them. They stopped and let her catch up. She panted a little, her cheeks gloriously flushed as she tried to catch her breath.
“You’re the ladies with the flying show. The mech pilots.”
“Did you fly in the Air Force? Is that where you learned it?”
“Yeah. I served two tours of duty on Luna, and Jolene served two and a half tours in the asteroid belt and the Martian combat zone. Protecting our mining bases.”
The girl’s eyes looked huge in the moonlight. She hesitated, looking from Casey to Jolene. “Did you like the Air Force? Was it okay?”
Jolene opened her mouth, and for a second, Casey thought that she would spill it all out, the dead husband, the chronic pain, the artificial heart, the grad school fuck-over. But instead, Jolene said: “It’s pretty good.”
Casey just stared at her.
“Yeah, the service can really take you places if you let it. It paid for me to go to college. I’m in grad school now.”
“College? It’ll pay for college?”
Both Casey and Jolene nodded.
The girl launched herself at Jolene, giving her an awkward hug. “Thanks.” She hugged Casey, too. “Thanks,” she repeated.
“Good luck,” Casey said. And then Jolene was tugging her back down the road, Casey walking backward as she waved at the girl, who beamed and waved back until she was just a speck in the distance.
The shoulders of the mechs gleamed white in the moonlight, their cockpits sparkling under the twinkle of the stars. It was a clear night, the sky stretching wide without cloud cover or light pollution. At home, back in Seattle, it was never like this. Casey let her head fall back, cricking her neck to take in the glimmering expanse.
“Ahh shit. I gotta go stow my mech’s graspers.”
Casey couldn’t take her eyes off the stars. Ursa Major looked ready to tumble down out of the sky. “It’s not gonna rain. Don’t worry about it.” Her earlier anger at Jolene’s silly thumbs-up stunt had disappeared in the booze and the fight.
“Might as well do it now, so I don’t have to get up and do it in the morning.”
Casey heard the grass swishing around Jolene’s legs, the hiss of the cockpit opening, the grumble of her PEAV firing up.
She finally dropped her gaze back to earth. “Hey, what?”
“Let’s fly. Just for fun. Just to remember how good it is.”
Jolene smiled down at her, a tiny figure in the giant suit of armor. Casey smiled back. In a minute, she was jacking in, the comforting presence of the PEAV operating system appearing in her mind.
They didn’t even need radio: they just launched in synchronicity, shooting up toward the stars, moving so fast it felt for a second like they might catch themselves on the Big Dipper, lift it back up into the top of the sky where it belonged. Without an audience, they didn’t bother with the colored steam or music cues. They just flew. For themselves. And as the mechs twisted and leaped, flight became dance.
A barn rose up ahead, and they pulled the mechs up sharp, just clearing the roofline. Casey stretched her grasping unit out to the Jolene’s mech, letting momentum spin the big machine back to her like a ballroom dancer spinning his partner. They whirled a second above the barn.
This, nightflight in a million-dollar killing machine turned to entertainment, this dance above a barn and not inside one–that was what the Air Force had given Casey. And right now, it was enough. Tomorrow there’d be dirt and the long drive to Wichita. She’d be a dyke and Jolene would be a cripple. Tomorrow they’d smile nice for the Air Force recruiter and pray that the check didn’t bounce.
Tonight they danced.
Wendy N. Wagner’s short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, Rigor Amortis, and Armored. Her first novel is due out Summer 2012 from Dagan Books. She will not enter an elevator until she’s first made sure there are no zombies or ninjas inside. You can keep up with her exploits at winniewoohoo.com. She says:
As a kid, I lived in a very small town, and one of our only contacts with the outside world — we had really limited television reception — were the visits from the bookmobile every two weeks. Because of that, I have a soft spot for stories about traveling circuses (is there a better circus story than Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes?) and airshows. I wanted to play with the idea of the traveling airshow and take it into the near future, and mecha seemed the perfect futuristic flavor.
Public domain illustration by Alfred T. Palmer depicts Long Beach worker at Douglas Aircraft Company on the B-17f.