4:2: “Inversions”, by Tom Doyle

4:2: “Inversions”, by Tom Doyle
Angie’s Story OK, Carol and me, we’re flying upside down together, which is brilliant. Floaters hurry around us in a hundred directions. We’re trying to blend in, so our personal dirigibles are blue-and-white, and my hair’s in a tight bun. But it’s shite. Up close, a Floater looks like two squids sewn together head to head with one set of tentacles holding on to an oval balloon with an arsehole, and I say so. “Though they’re not the ugliest culchies of the galaxy by a long shot, I’ll grant you that.” 

Carol’s end of the com gets a bit matronizing and insubordinate. “Now Chief,” she says, “some of us find them quite graceful, serene, and beautiful. And as for calling their air valve an ‘arsehole’…”

I tune out. Carol’s self-bollocksing is as hard to hear as to watch. Even upside down with a shaved head and bones practically jabbing through, she isn’t half-bad to look at, but I don’t say so–this is a mission, not a colony. And exactly how far will this woman go to please the locals? Carol has too many questions about Floater fecking and too many Japanese prints with an “octopus and maiden” theme. I should have sent her home by now.

The wind is whipping my loose bits of uniform. Yeah, it’s brilliant, and I’ll miss it–if I survive my stunt today. Then Carol whines and whistles like gas being let out of a balloon at different speeds. It’s formal Floater speak. “Jaysus, no need for that,” I say. “Just me here.”

“Just practicing, Chief. We’ve got to improve our connection with the Floating World.”

Time for the bad news. “The Floating World has got their heads up their upside-down arses. The Floater Council has demanded the conference go arse upwards or they won’t attend.”

The Floater disinterest in the Sentience League Conference on the development of the local star systems has Carol gob-smacked. “Did you tell them the League is still subject to the presence fallacy? That an inverted vid link won’t cut it?”

“They know they have to show up to be heard, if that’s what you mean.”

“This is awful. The Floating World will be surrounded, unable to grow. Why are we bothering with this damned tour? We need to do something!”

To restore morale, I confide more of my plan than I intended. “Look you, I don’t want the Floating World to become a backwater for the rest of the galaxy to tramp through, not any more than you do. But don’t you ever wonder the real reason why they need everybody to be upside down? I’ve heard rumors of a serious row when some Antarean birdhead had to right itself. And something nasty supposedly happened to a stickman who tried to pass using holo and prosthetics. So, you tell me: what exactly would we look like right-side-up to a Floater?”

Carol puts a hand to her head; she finally gets it. “We would look like a Floater who had stopped floating, and whose head was where… other things should be.”

We’re nearly at the spaceport now. The great floating beasties holding up the aboveground bits loom like flying whales. So I rush the rest. “I’m going to try to talk some more with that Council stooge, Cloud Flyer. He’s all right, though still a bit stiff. Maybe he can help us figure out what’s going on. That would be better than literally bending over backwards for them forever. But just talk probably won’t work.

“So look,” I say, “whatever happens after that, just follow my lead and do what I tell you. Got that?”

That was as much as I could tell her and still keep her shielded from the shite that would hit.

But it wasn’t enough.

———•———

Cloud Flyer’s Story

Cloud Flyer felt shameful, dirty even, but he knew his duty, so he waited, hungry and hovering. He was anxious to conduct this tour of the spaceport before his first meal, but he soon regretted arriving early. He had too much time to imagine the humans in their mission area with their unnatural orientation –feet towards the ground, head towards the sky. Even without feeding, thinking of that still made him queasy. He mustn’t think of it for long. His many arms shuddered. Shameful. Dirty. Hungry.

His peripheral eyes nearly closed as he focused his front eyes on the horizon. He saw with relief the two humans approaching. One of them was the mission chief, her long hair tied close to her head (thank the Center!). She waved her arm in what appeared to be a threat display, but was actually the human form of greeting. Her uniform bore the symbols for her name, which began “A-N-G-E-L-A.” The translator rendered this as “Highest Sky Female.”

Before meeting Highest Sky, Cloud Flyer hadn’t believed that any name could be more high and dishonorable than his own. But her straightforward alien simplicity made him more comfortable with her than the other humans, particularly the one accompanying her today.

The second human, “C-A-R-O-L” translated as “Song,” said “Good day” to Flyer without the use of the chip. Cloud Flyer’s floating bladder sucked in air with a whine of discomfort at her informality. Song’s tricks were no longer amusing, and hints had been given that she might want to rest from her duties. Song’s breathing device reassured Cloud Flyer more than any commonality–no matter how they tried, these groundlings remained alien.

He greeted them with more proper formality: “The Sun lowers to the Floating World.” The humans received the translation through chips in their brains. Cloud Flyer would never consider such a device, and relied on transmissions from the human’s chip to an external receiver. The tips of his arms curled in –implantation was sacrilege.

The other Council staff on the tour managed to avoid the obvious shame of proximity to the humans. But they did not seem to be aware of the less obvious embarrassment that troubled Cloud Flyer. This spaceport, the pride of the Council of Lords, was the only one on the planet. But going towards the sky, even to outer space, had never been the Floating World’s priority, so the facility was woefully out of date. And aliens used the spaceport far more than the Floating World. Because Cloud Flyer was unusually conscious of these facts, the Council was able to humiliate him without even trying.

Some technicians led them through the facility. A camera hovered near by, recording the tour. Highest Sky flew next to Cloud Flyer. One of the technicians, Mid-Air Female, recited the dull facts in a high whine. “The spaceport covers an area of…”

Highest Sky spoke quietly to Cloud Flyer as Mid-Air whined on. “Would conversation regarding the Sentience League Conference be desirable?”

Cloud Flyer could only hide from an alien his outrage regarding the conference. But a direct refusal to attend would be impolite to the humans. Their well-meant attention to the situation only provoked uneasiness; they should imitate the Floating World and ignore the conference. Affirming the Council’s answer would help them to see that.

“The Council of Lords has agreed we will attend if the participants assume a proper orientation, as you do here.”

“Flyer, whatever the Council says, you know why that isn’t possible, don’t you?”

He did, but how could he admit that to her?

They flew through the control building, a hanging tower of horizontal plastic sheets with equipment hanging from each sheet, open on all sides to allow workers to fly in and out.

“Flyer, if we are going to help you, we have to know. Why is proper orientation so important?”

This was too much. “Silence would be preferable.”

“If we knew why, we might be able to fix it. Can’t you explain that to them? What about Lord Ground Grazer?”

Thank the Center the tour was over. Conversation would have to end as they hovered outside the port for questions and answers. “We are as we are named, Highest Sky Female,” he stated with finality. At least they had this in common: being a high “sky” or “cloud” when food was on the ground. They were both a world away from a Ground Grazer.

Highest Sky just said, “You have misunderstood my name, Flyer,” then burst away, as if to return to the mission area. But her dirigible unit jerked erratically. She announced, “It’s busted. Going down.” She spiraled towards the ground, and was already dangerously close to complete disorientation. Song saw this and called out to Cloud Flyer “Orientation change!”

Song followed her down, even as Highest Sky protested. “No Song, don’t. I can handle this.”

Cloud Flyer, to his own surprise, did not panic. “Floating World, turn away and shut all eyes!” Once Highest Sky reached the ground, she would have to remove her malfunctioning unit and completely invert herself–feet on the ground, head towards the sky. Shameful, dirty. Dangerous.

Completely closing off the peripheral vision required effort, and the technical personnel had not been taught emergency procedures. Mid-Air and Mist Breather, her mate, must have caught a glimpse of Highest Sky disoriented on the surface. For a mating pair, the instinctual impulse overwhelmed all. They dashed for Highest Sky, arms thrashing.

“Sex death!” they whined in uncontrollable ecstasy.

“Keep your eyes closed!” Cloud Flyer commanded the others. They could not interfere without becoming frenzied themselves. Regrettably, the human must be lost.

Cloud Flyer knew what happened next only from the camera’s carefully edited images, images that were also seen by the rest of the Floating World. Song was floating near Highest Sky when Mid-Air descended upon them. With Song between her and her prey, Mid-Air struck the unsuspecting Song, detaching her from her unit and sending her to the ground.

Highest Sky moved towards Song to help her, but was stopped by Mist Breather, who enveloped Highest Sky with all his arms, nearly pulling her off the ground. Highest Sky managed to touch the sleeve of her uniform, and Mist Breather was thrown back by some invisible shock. Gas escaped from his bladder. He recovered his focus, then grabbed for Highest Sky again. “Sex death sex death sex death!” But he was shocked each time he repeated his assault, stunned nearly into unconsciousness.

Meanwhile, Mid-Air had grasped on to the semi-conscious Song to begin to absorb her. Song’s chip broadcast a sad confusion of hope and terror even as Highest Sky attempted to come to her aid, screaming at her to “activate her shield.” But Mid-Air soon finished absorbing Song, and her chip fell silent.

The unnatural weight of the human carrion held Mid-Air to the ground, so she was unable to assist her mate with Highest Sky. Song’s form was still visible through Mid-Air’s translucent skin, as Song’s detached dirigible unit floated off into the sky.

Only when the mating pair was quiet with exhaustion did the rest of the Floating World turn its attention carefully towards them. Highest Sky had reactivated her unit and reoriented, preventing further attacks by the unwary. Her hands shook as she checked a device on her sleeve. She spoke strangely, and Cloud Flyer suspected the translator erred again. “Song is carrion. You will please return her meat to us.”

Cloud Flyer instead directed that the mating pair be taken to the spaceport’s infirmary. The humans could fend for themselves. On behalf of the Floating World, he was furious at them. They had brought weapons here and, still worse, their constant tempting presence had finally revealed the atavistic heart of the World’s being. Their inverted image of death and perversity had triggered the old carrion feeder instinct, the frenzy that purified the Floating World and led to the secret ways of love.

Cloud Flyer’s bladder deflated slightly; his shock and fury had exhausted him. He felt small and empty, but at least now maybe he could get something to eat.

———•———

Two days later, I’m exiting the mission. My blood, tits, and hair swing around in the orientation lock. I’m completely wrecked, a good mood for a friend’s funeral. I’m desperate for a whiskey, but there’ll be no wake today.

I should have known: when the Floaters saw something that looked belly-up dying, they ate it, then fecked each other. I interrupted the coitus, but I could tell from the screams of “sex death!” where things were going. Should have known–maybe Carol would still be alive. I also should’ve known that she wouldn’t follow orders if she thought she was saving me.

How did I get to this world turned upside down? Easy steps. Athlone, Ireland to London, England to Washington, DC to space. “An outstanding candidate for mission chief”–all in the shitter now. The clock’s running. Soon, there’ll be a reaction back home, then an investigation. So I don’t have much time, and the message I sent to the fleet that morning made sure of it.

As I fly, I rub my back, sore from too much arse over elbows. The air pressure is no craic either, though drugs cover the bends.

At the designated “Gateway to the Center,” I find my new assistant Paul easily despite the crowd and the perennial smoky fog that rises from the ground. He’s holding my place just by his presence. A thousand Floaters have gathered in the open, and except for a few security types they keep more than their usual distance.

“Are you sure we should be here?” asks Paul, eyes darting from one Floater to another.

“Yes. It’s Carol’s funeral too. We have to be here.” And despite every obstacle raised, I’ve made sure of it. Paul is a daft newcomer eejit, but at least he does what he’s told. He doesn’t inquire how I got back with a tetchy dirigible unit, or where the unit is now. Good lad.

Nearby, the Floater VIPs wait within a plastic pavilion hanging from the largest draught beast I’ve seen. Next to the VIPs, an automated camera will again capture the moment for the rest of the Floating World. I want to wave at it, but don’t. That isn’t the kind of scene I need to make.

Cloud Flyer comes forward, sucking gas, carrying something that looks like a flower box. “Your presence here is extremely difficult.”

I’m unfazed. “Our condolences.”

He points a tentacle at my dirigible. “A new one?”

Interesting. I don’t answer. I think he suspects.

Despite the cold reception and memories of Carol, I enjoy watching the ceremony. It’s weird and wonderful, the way everything used to be for me on this world. The rites are close to the ground and near an entrance to a Floater underground tunnel complex so that the spirit can easily find its way to the Center. As the pallbearers bring a vertical floating box through the mourners, I nag Cloud Flyer to explain the details.

“Mid-Air has been righted by the blindfolded undertakers, her bladder filled again with gas, her body made up with the semblance of life. Then, she was placed in that coffin.”

I know now from the cock-up at the spaceport why all this is necessary. The modern Floating World apparently goes to great lengths to avoid eating their own dead. “And Carol?” I ask.

“She is in there as well.”

Damned shame. Alive, Carol would be happy–she’s upside down and about as intimate as you can be with a Floater.

Several Floaters, including Lord Ground Grazer himself, make long impersonal speeches: “They have begun their journey to the Center” and such. Mid-Air’s parents whine strangely all the while. I gab more with Cloud Flyer, waiting for my opportunity.

———•———

Cloud Flyer never fully understood the height of his unimportance until this day, observing the rites with the humans. There had been no avoiding it–he was the unanimous choice. Lord Ground Grazer had even made innuendoes about Cloud Flyer’s “great understanding of the humans.”

So be it. He would do his duty for the Floating World, however much personal shame it brought him.

Now the human mission chief, the one responsible for all this death and disgrace, was rudely talking during Lord Ground Grazer’s speech. “Flyer, how did Mid-Air actually die?”

“Song killed her.”

“Flyer, with all due respect, I think it was the other way around.”

“Between your endoskeletons and your heavy metals, you are difficult to digest, toxic, and disgraceful to eat besides.” Perhaps this was too harsh; Cloud Flyer sought to mitigate any insult. “Mid-Air’s final words were of your friend. She said that Song was delicious, once she got over the smell.”

Highest Sky spasmodically released air, and the translator could not tell whether her noise was joyful or sad. “Song would have wanted it that way. But usually flavor is a better indicator of biological compatibility.”

“Yes, it is unfair, Highest Sky. Tasting so good, you should be more digestible.”

Highest Sky did not seem to take this criticism well. “I’m sure Song would have been easier to stomach if she could have helped it.”

Lord Ground Grazer seemed to be winding up. “…there should be discussion on the human presence.”

Highest Sky apparently had no ear for tactful speech and asked, “What does he mean?”

“The Council of Lords wishes to meet with you after the funeral regarding the difficulties with the human mission.”

“That’s grand.” Her casual attitude was infuriating.

A new speaker commenced another eulogy. “Mist Breather, mate of Mid-Air, served the Floating World all his life…”

Highest Sky was again impatiently rude. “Flyer, what happened to Mist Breather?”

“He has also begun his journey to the Center.”

“But my shield–”

“Did not permanently damage Mist Breather. But his shame did.” Cloud Flyer then presented Highest Sky with the sacramental box. “Mist Breather’s last wish was to offer his carrion self to you,” he said. The eulogist told the mourners the same thing.

Highest Sky slowly held the box out towards the ground and opened its cover towards the sky. Inside was the deflated Mist Breather–no semblance of life, ready to eat. “For what purpose did he give himself?”

“As food.”

“Oh, of course. Thank you. We accept him.”

Cloud Flyer and the mourners waited expectantly. Would the human see that she was being treated like the primitive carrion feeders of the higher air? Would she eat it despite the risk of toxins?

“Well, I’m not going to eat him now. I’m not hungry.” Highest Sky looked around at the mourners. “I’ve got a better idea. I’ll share.” With the eulogist building to a whistling climax, “take and eat, take and eat,” Highest Sky turned the box over and emptied its contents towards the ground. “Dinner time.”

———•———

Oh, I’ve done it now. If there’s one thing I’m an expert at, it’s starting a riot.

The moment he sees what I’ve done, Cloud Flyer turns away, peripheral eyes shut. But he’s the only one nearby to do this. A swarm of mourners descends on Mist Breather’s scanty remains. In the fracas, some of the Floaters are squeezed so their bladders fail, and they drop to the ground. They hold themselves upright with desperate difficulty. Closer to the carcass, a Floater becomes disoriented and is in turn torn apart.

Meanwhile, the pallbearers don’t wait to open the top of the vertical coffin. Poof! There’s Mid-Air, larger than life. The lines of Carol’s skeleton show through Mid-Air’s translucent skin. They float up together even as some of the rioters descend to the ground. Way up in the higher atmosphere, the carrion beasts will smell through their charade and tear them apart. Thus, as a Floater would say, their spirits will be freed to approach the Center of the Floating World. I just hope Carol makes it home.

Eventually, the feeding frenzy ebbs, and I hear a new nastiness in the crowd. Words like “abomination!,” “perverts!,” “murderers!” rapidly spread. Some of the Floaters are waving their tentacles towards the ground. Not good.

A sphere of security Floaters forms around the VIPs, who fled their viewing area when the great draught beast got spooked by the disturbance. The beast’s handlers try desperately to calm it as the viewing pavilion shakes beneath it.

Paul and I are alone, unprotected, as the crowd forms its own sphere around us. With the crowd threatening us, Cloud Flyer turns back around and screeches like a banshee, “Protect the humans!” He and a few security Floaters break through the mourners to cordon them off. Impressive.

I turn my back towards Paul, our dirigible units in parallel, and wait for the chaos to calm.

The crowd pushes in hard from all directions, and the security response lacks spirit. The sphere shrinks around us until the bladders of the security Floaters are nearly kissing our dirigible units.

The crowd’s really raging now. Some can just reach me through gaps in the security.

“Paul,” I say, “on my command, activate your shield. Now.”

Our combined shields thrust Cloud Flyer and the ring of security against the crowd. Through every open space, Floater tentacles flail against the shield and whip back in pain.

I pull out my stunner, and fire it into the riot. Floater after Floater is stunned, though none lose orientation yet. Paul is staring at me, nearly as stunned as the Floaters.

Cloud Flyer screeches, “Get the humans to the tunnels.” Again, impressive. Authority and presence of mind.

With more spirit now, the security fights through enough of the crowd to get us to the entrance to the underground chambers. That’s grand, because I’ve one more incident to create.

———•———

Cloud Flyer guided the humans through the tunnels. For Cloud Flyer’s ancestors, belowground had been the frontier. They found that their design was exapted for tunnel dwelling, though the open air remained their place of birth and, as he had just seen, death.

The humans had abandoned their dirigible units–they had mag boots for underground. They skated on the tunnel surface, the skidding sound echoing down the tunnel like a warning.

He brought the group to a memorial cul-de-sac, where plaques to the Low surrounded them. “You will remain here for the moment, while I consult with the Council of Lords.”

Highest Sky seemed agitated. “Tell them I’ll meet with them, as they requested.”

Cloud Flyer could now recognize clearly one emotion in an alien. He had seen it in Song’s face before her end. It was in the male’s face now, in his darting eyes. It was fear.

That did it. The male must fear that Highest Sky intended to commit another outrage in the Council’s presence. She was in all probability mad, perhaps from the chronic strain of proper orientation. Insane, she might not represent the human view. If he could keep her from the Council, he might prevent a disaster.

“The Council has much to consider. But I will return soon.”

At a polite distance from the humans, he left two guards whose purpose should be clear even to an alien.

———•———

Paul broke into a red-faced, fretting frown. “Chief, we can’t stay like this forever.”

“Don’t worry,” I say, “We won’t have to.”

“Are you sure that we’re handling all this right?”

“Positive.” My act at the funeral was a bit much even for him. I tap my head, signaling to take our chips offline. Then I whisper, “Look, when they get back, anything could happen. Follow my lead, and be ready with your personal shield. I don’t want you ending up like Carol. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the eejit stammers.

———•———

Cloud Flyer returned. “Your presence on the Floating World has become extremely difficult.”

“Difficult? You had one of our people for lunch.”

“And you committed sacrilege at a funeral.” Cloud Flyer addressed the humans now as if he were speaking politely to disobedient pets. “The rest of your people no longer come out from the mission area. We cannot see you all in proper orientation.” Human orientation could not be left to the imagination of the Floating World for too long, or the Floating World might imagine itself into a frenzy.

“I left instructions. We are no longer safe.”

“True, we cannot guarantee your safety here any longer. You will remove yourselves to the spaceport, and wait for a ship there.”

“This mission area is ours by treaty. We will remain there until our ship comes. Until then, we advise you not to approach.”

“We would regret a discussion of war.”

“I would too, as by now a human fleet is nearing your planet. Again, I anticipated difficulties.”

“You caused this! We will fight you!”

“We? What world will fight with you? What species can you get to help?”

Her mad logic was too much for Cloud Flyer. He refilled his bladder to regain his calm. “I will give your response to the Council. You will remain here.”

“Wait. Send everyone else away. We need to speak privately. To show you why you shouldn’t keep us here.” Cloud Flyer hesitated. “Come on, Flyer. Where could we escape to?”

Cloud Flyer instructed the guards to move farther down the tunnel, out of sight. He had a foreboding, but it was his duty to endure any shame alone.

“I was watching you at the funeral. For a moment, you saw what I had done. But you could turn away.”

“What is your point, Highest Sky?”

“This.” In one motion, Highest Sky pulled herself up and unlatched herself from her mag boots. Then she hit the ground, feet first. And there she was, like his nightmare, feet at his face, face at his air bladder. He did not turn away. His response was quicker than seven thousand years of civilization. He attacked.

The shock hit him. He recoiled, gas forced from his bladder. But his passion wasn’t done yet–the male had also unlatched. Cloud Flyer lashed out for him. Again the horrible shock, more gas escaping. He sank against the ground. He held himself steady, his weight on his many arms. It was strange–a taste of their world.

He looked again at the two humans. His senses adjusted, the need to feed dissipated. He could hear his own thoughts over the roar of instinct. These things were not carrion, not sex death. He felt it in his skin–these were the familiar sentient beings whom he now had to survive to stop.

“You had enough yet, Flyer?” asked Highest Sky. “Do you see why you have to let us go?”

“Yes.” No one else could endure this yet. “Please resume proper orientation.”

As the humans helped each other into their mag boots and proper orientation, Cloud Flyer continued speaking, his steadiness a counterpoint to his words. “I know why you done this. But you are still insane. Besides what you have done to the Floating World, to your own kind, do you understand what you’ve done to me? I’ll be forced to… Center, help me.”

Cloud Flyer whistled for the guards. “Take them back to their mission area. Then stand guard there to ensure nobody leaves without the Council’s permission. They must not be allowed to inflict any more shame on the Floating World.”

Leaving them, barely able to contain his gas, Cloud Flyer knew that this was only a temporary reprieve from far more dishonorable duties. As this mad woman had intended, the conflict had moved beyond the Floating World. Someone would have to move with it.

———•———

Low Flyer’s Story

“I’m not what I was.” Low Flyer, his name change confirmed by Council, ignores propriety. Here in this alien place, this “pub,” Low Flyer needs to make Highest Sky understand what he couldn’t say before–what she has done to him. “I submitted to sacrilege, there was no other choice. I had already endured your perversity, but we couldn’t afford an accident. I’ve been injected with drugs to calm my reaction to all of this.” He waves an arm about in an almost human fashion at the orientation of this world. “I allowed an implant of a chip” tapping his head “so I can follow, and trust, your words.

“I am now a non-person, less than carrion, since what creature will now deign to consume my altered flesh? They have given me a low name, but though I’ll return there soon, I’ll always be outside the Floating World. Because of you.”

“Jaysus, Flyer, no ‘hello, how are you?'” Alone of the aliens in the pub, Highest Sky is properly oriented, suspended by mag boots from the pressed-metal ceiling.

“You mock me, Highest Sky.”

“The name’s ‘Angie.'” She sounds it out in the Floating World’s new phonemes for untranslatable offworld sounds. Then she continues with the translator, “And no, Flyer. I’m proud of you. Do you mind?” she asks, pointing to her boots. “I’d like to stand you for a round.”

She’s loud and expansive on her home ground, making Low Flyer nervous. “It’s your world.”

Angie pulls herself up and springs to the ground, just as she had on the Floating World. She sits on a stool at the bar, and Low Flyer, bladder at minimum, hovers next to her.

“Barkeep, some calamari for my friend here, and a pint of Guinness for me.”

“Calamari?” Low Flyer’s translation is uncertain.

“You’ll see. That was a nice speech you gave today, short and to the point. You actually got applause.”

Low Flyer sputters a bit of gas. “You heard it?”

“Wouldn’t have missed it.”

“The speech was short because I didn’t know how long the drugs and mental conditioning would hold out. The clapping surprised me–I can’t believe it was sincere. When I looked out at the conference, I realized what I must look like to them, to you. Upside down. Alien. They can’t be trusted with the Floating World’s destiny.”

“That’s the spirit.” Their orders interrupt them. “Go ahead and try the calamari. I had some xenobio folks check it out for you. No bones, but I can’t vouch for the taste.”

Low Flyer absorbs a piece. “It’s strange.”

“But not bad?”

“Not sure yet.” He takes another piece–eating doesn’t interfere with speech. “By the way, I get the joke. Squid. Very funny. But not bad.” He grabs another piece.

Angie laughs. “That’s grand then. You never cease to impress me.”

This is too much. Low Flyer hums low and angry. “The spaceport and the funeral riot were both deliberate provocations by you. Why did you have to do it? Your Sentience League isn’t worth the gas.”

“Because you had to come here to give your nice speech, to tell the human mission and the military I had called in and everyone else to feck off, and assert the rights of the Floating World as the native sentient species to the unoccupied systems in your sector.”

Low Flyer slaps the bar with an arm. “So you admit it, the humans did it deliberately. I’ll inform my government.”

“Hold up, Flyer. Nobody else knows anything about it. This was all me. And you’ve already helped make sure that I’ve paid for my actions, and will pay some more.”

Yes, she has paid, but her expulsion from the Floating world and dismissal from her government’s service isn’t nearly enough. “Why did you bother to meet me then, just to tell me this?”

“Because you’re going to be important, Flyer, so you have to understand.”

This praise embarrasses Low Flyer. “I understand that you nearly brought us to war. Surely there was another way.”

Angie shakes her head. “Hell, Flyer, you knew this was important, and you still had to be forced into it. But I was glad to hear they chose you.”

“It couldn’t have been anyone else–you made sure of that.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve both had to make sacrifices.”

“Like Song? How could you do that to one of your own?”

Angie replies slowly, deliberately. “I didn’t know that was going to happen to Carol. I think of her everyday. But you and I both know that she represented everything that was wrong with the mission. Whatever her taste.” She takes a long drink.

Low Flyer’s anger refuses to be satisfied with this. “Three of the Floating World and one of your world have gone towards the Center. Were their journeys worth it?” He sucks in air. “And why shouldn’t I kill you right here and now?”

“For feck sake, Flyer, I don’t know.” She is suddenly impatient with him. “Let’s do the tally. Your interstellar neighborhood won’t be overrun by right-side-up developers. You’ll be on the Council soon, despite your sacrilege. I’ll be on the dole and pissed. And one day you’ll understand what a friend I was to the Floating World. Until then, you shouldn’t kill me because I’d bust your guts going down, and that would make all those other deaths a complete waste. Slainte.” Flushed as if properly oriented, she raises her glass towards him.

So that’s why she seems different. “You’re intoxicated.”

“An Irish woman isn’t drunk so long as when the world starts spinning, she doesn’t fly off. You gonna fly off now, Flyer?”

Low Flyer bows against gravity. “Farewell, Angie, or whatever your name really means.”

Angie smiles. “I think you would say ‘Messenger of the Center.'”

Low Flyer does not reply, and leaves her to her drink.



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