Bit of a longer piece for September. I realize that it can be a bit of a dirty word at times in the larger science fiction / fantasy world, but the fact remains that I cut my teeth as an author writing for the the anthropomorphic animal (or “furry”) subculture; this type of character has always (and I suspect will always) hold me fascinated. While at attending a recent convention, I met up with my old-school homegirl Electric Keet, the primary author of a flash-and-dash science-fiction sports serial called “Thirteen Ribbons” which had funny animals and plenty of glowy neon lights, and thus was a 1:1 interest match for me. During our con together, Keet reminded me of a quick character study I did for her writing universe; I took another look at it in the wake of our conversation, and I think that (a) it stands alone without familiarity with the larger writing project and (b) it’s aged pretty well, better than some of my older writings at least. So, since I’ve got a few different readers now, I thought I’d share it. Hope you like!
* * *
She is white tonight.
She’s always white, literally speaking, but because she is white she becomes any color the world puts on her. In the clinical green of the examination rooms, where Lacuna’s race doctors take her vitals and measure the thrumming of her strong heart, she is that green. When, on rare occasion, she joins me in the great Casino Alfheim, where I sit sucking nic and surrendering what little wealth I have back into Lacuna’s all-devouring economy, she is a creature of gold and strobe. I have once, just once, caught a glimpse of her under the ultraviolet lamps of a Vanaheim nightclub, and there she shone out like a thing radioactive. And when Lacuna dictates that the audience needs a dose of up-close-and-personal, in order that the wagerers will have a thread of something, a character trait, a personality quirk, to hang their money on, she has been put on display, with her fellow coursers, in the great Bifrost Arcade, its crystal trees and fountains cycling through all the colors of the spectrum. And yes, she is, in turn, each and every one of them.
She is white tonight. She stands proud, her long canine face held at a high and resolute angle beneath the Klieg lights. Underneath the flowing purple warmup surplice she wears are a molecule-thin skintight racing suit of red and white stripes and a heartbreaking array of grav coils. I try not to think about either, for very different reasons.
Number Eight, also known as Bianca Fiore, does not look at the assembled crowd here at Valhalla by Lacuna. While the other Greyhounds put on something of a show – by dint of executive suggestion from their handlers or a natural bent toward showmanship, I cannot say which – Fi seems aloof. Not the good kind of aloof, either. It’s not the sort of aloof you can parlay into a sorta Ice Queen-ish reputation, lord knows I’ve tried. It’s just sort of… blank. Like nothing exists in this whole wide solar system except her and that track. Audiences don’t much like to feel irrelevant, but for better or for worse, to Fi, they occasionally are. Sometimes she wants to race, and sometimes, it just wants to run.
And then there is a third thing I have a hard time describing, because language is a wholly insufficient tool to convey exactly what Bianca Fiore is. What I do know is that here on the track, beneath the searing white lights, all three of her are in harmony. I get it now. I finally understand. And that is why I am getting out.
“Look at that,” says one of the bettors, a Terra Normal like most everyone in the crowd tonight, squinting his eyes at the holographic stat digits floating in the sky like the printed invectives of some angry fire-god. “Eight’s only paying out two to one.”
“Holy frell,” remarks his companion, gesturing at another statistic. “D’ye see the weights she’s got on?” He pauses to munch from his bag of corn snacks, and delivers the next line from around a mouthful, miraculously keeping all crumbs in play. “I mean, how does one of those things even run dragging that load?”
I wish I knew, I said, very quietly, but of course he hadn’t been talking to me.
The first speaker consults his program. “She must really be something. Two to one with that load?”
She is, I say again to myself. She is, indeed, something.
“That can’t be right,” says the second speaker. “Odds for that handicap should be something like, I dunno.” He trails off, unable to calculate.
I finish his sentence for him. One in a million, I say.
I have been told that I have an honest face, for a meerkat. The never-stated-but-always-implied coda being, of course, “which isn’t saying much”. I came to Callisto several years ago in the wake of a felony-grade misunderstanding on Ganymede with nothing but a jumpsuit, a vicious nic habit and my dashing good looks to my name, and have been steadily lining the coffers of the Lacuna Gaming Corporation ever since.
There’s not much to see on Callisto, not legally anyway. And since I am hovering comfortably in that null space just below “arrest this creature on sight”, I am not eager to be pushing my luck on that front. So, the vast majority of my time on Callisto has been spent in one place: Valhalla by Lacuna.
But, oh, what a place to spend it! Valhalla by Lacuna is the place to be on this otherwise stick-up-the-arse moon. On the whole, Io’s got better facilities than Callisto, and more of them, but Valhalla absolutely defines the concept of “one-stop entertainment destination”. All the rich Terra Normal landowners up and realized one day that they’re Only Human (heh, heh) and need vices just like anyone, need places to evaporate some of their vast sums of liquid capital. The Lacuna Corporation was more than happy to oblige them, on as many fronts as possible, and promptly turned one big chunk of prime real estate – Valhalla crater on Callisto’s beautiful Joveward quarter – into this world’s premier (and only) gambling and entertainment paradise. You can do anything here, from skittles to beer and beyond, and you can bet on ninety-five percent of it. And Lacuna always, always takes its cut. We are all the bitch of Lacuna, and lord, are we enjoying it.
My name is Lemuel, and I am small and furry and adorable. Touch me. Love me. Engage in brief, ill-advised relationships with me, become justifiably upset by certain details of my conduct towards you then hit me and walk out the door. You know you want to. I am a gambler by trade, and I also handle bet racers, which is to say, a bet racer. You’ve met her already, above. It’s a sideline occupation passed to me by my uncle, and though very few people know this, it is an occupation that is ending tonight. It is ending fast; but then again, that’s nothing new. Most endeavors in my life, from business to coitus, end with extreme alacrity. The knock upon the door, the idle “Hey, aren’t you—” from a previously-disinterested passerby, the desperate sprint for the last departing shuttle. This time, I had about a day’s worth of notice. Or at least, I would have, had I seen the hand on the stopwatch for what it was.
At the time, it just sort of looked like my uncle.
“Dish licker is acting up again,” said my uncle, as though speaking of an appliance instead of a sapient creature.
I set the simulated reels on my slot machine of choice spinning for the millionth time today and took another drag off the nic. The mix was all wrong, way too much clove and an awful throat hit. As a result, my initial response to my uncle’s complaint was to cough all over him from on high.
“Blood and thunder,” said Uncle Rasputin, skrinching up his nose. “What exactly is it you suck on today?”
“It’s good stuff,” I lied. “Lots of, ah, herbs.” I inspected the tiny white spindle of my nic atomizer for a moment as though I could tell the compounds in its reservoir via x-ray spectography. Truth be told, I’m not actually sure what I filled the damn thing with, because I was pretty drunk at the time. But I trust my Drunk Self to not poison my Sober Self by dropping engine cleaner in the atomizer, because, much to its chagrin, Drunk Self needs me in order that it might live. Rasputin would frown in a sour fashion were I to explain this all to him and it would set a poor tone for the remainder of the discussion.
Today, it wasn’t terribly relevant; I correctly figured that the tone of the discussion was just about set from moment one. So, I merely I demonstrated the goodness of my nic by giving it a nice theatrical suck, and did a damn fine job concealing my subsequent grimace.
I smiled. My eyes watered.
“Herbs,” I said.
“Eh heh,” said Uncle Rasputin. “Listen to me, boy, are you going to come down off that stool and speak to me eye to eye, or what is going on, I don’t know.” Uncle Rasputin has a hard time finishing sentences; like many old motors I have known, he keeps running for a while after being shut off.
I sighed. The particular Lucky Kitty slot I had selected was bound to pay out soon, pseudorandom number lists being what they are, and I was loath to quit while behind… but family is family. Trying my best to lock down my emotions and ignore the enticements of the hypersexualized cartoon cat on the screen, I stabbed the cash-out button with an unfair amount of force, yanked my gaming pad and hopped down off my stool so I could talk to Uncle Rasputin full aface. A stupid little piece of me always relished the chance to talk to my uncle, no matter how much friction we generated, for the simple fact that he’s one of the few people on this moon who doesn’t tower over me, and it’s nice to have a conversation with something other than thighs and kneecaps from time to time.
“So how is the thing you do,” said Rasputin, when I was back at approximately eye level. “How is the gambling today. You win, yes?”
“Actually, I’m bleeding em like a sieve,” I said. “Things are doubleplus ungood. About due for that one-in-a-million, though.”
“You never win the one-in-a-million,” said Rasputin. “You have to be one-in-a-million for that, and you are just one boy, as I am just one man.” He shrugged. “Eh. Slot machines are for lonely old ladies.”
“I like the pretty pictures,” I said. “Tell me what’s wrong with Fi.”
Rasputin gave me his best look of aggrieved patience. “What is wrong with the girl? What is not wrong with the girl, is the question, more like what you should be saying.”
“So you came here,” I said, “to complain about the status quo. Is that it?”
Rasputin chewed his cheeks for a bit.
“Walk with me, Lemuel,” he said.
So, we walked, out onto the Casino Alfheim’s crowded main floor, Rasputin bobbing and weaving effortlessly through the sea of legs like a duck on a lake, and me, well, whatever the exact polar opposite of that is.
“Willful and intemperate, that one,” said Rasputin, artfully ducking into the gap between the legs of an octogenarian couple. “None of the prima donna fits that you can stroke down with flattery and kind words and bonbons.” My uncle grunted and nodded firmly. “Today, she just… stops.”
“She’s at the trainer’s for a reason,” I said, and then immediately ran face-first into a really nice pair of slacks. “Oof,” I added, then struggled to catch up. “Nobody’s body is built for constant hundred-percent performance. She needs time to heal.”
“We are not talking about the many strains and injuries. Fortitude has never been that one’s great strength.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“Nor are we talking about the little black fits, the thing where it looks like she is almost not going to make post but then she is there at the last. We are talking about refusing to try altogether.”
“I’ll talk with her.”
Rasputin snorted, ducking beneath a ruffed dress and back out again without its owner even noticing. “The boy will talk to her,” he said.
“The boy should already be talking to her. The boy should be there by dish licker’s side. The boy should not be pissing away money on money machines, relying upon his uncle to come get him and remind him where his responsibilities lie.” Rasputin pivoted effortlessly around another milling throng. “His uncle with the very sore back that pains him to walk, and it is hard for him.”
“Spare me,” I said, nearly avoiding being stepped on. “I didn’t ask for this job.”
“The boy never asks for any job, that is his problem. You take money from me, you sleep in my spare apartment when you have nowhere else to go. That means you work. Work is good for you.”
“I’m not a people person, Rasputin,” I said. “I’m not a showman. And if Fi weren’t strong enough to drag herself out of her own black fits, she wouldn’t be racing at all, ’cos I sure as hell can’t push her.”
“It is good for you to do things you are not good at, is what I am saying.”
“Enough,” said Rasputin, stopping in the middle of a great domed commons, his eyes asmoulder in the shadows of a hundred passing people. “I give Bianca Fiore to you to manage because you lose so much. Everything you try. Home. Business. Love. Lose lose lose.”
My eye twitched. There were any number of things I could have said at this point, but I found I didn’t really feel like saying any of them. My entire stable of clever retorts had gone on lightning holiday and hadn’t left their number.
“So I give you something to be responsible for,” Rasputin continued, apparently satisfied with the effect his words were having on me. “Bianca Fiore, the girl who never lose. I think to myself, well, maybe this one dish licker might be inspiring in some way to you, or something like that.”
I swallowed, my eye twitch settling down a bit. Fi was, is, an inspiration to me, but it’s in ways my uncle could not understand. And that’s why I wasn’t at her side that day. It’s why I was there, playing the slots in Alfheim while, arguably, the greatest racing Greyhound in history sat in her trainer’s workroom, mired in invisible tangles not of her own devising.
It’s because I fucking hate inspiration.
Rio was the trainer on duty that day. Dipping into shorthand: she’s a coyote, but hasn’t always been that way. Rio jokes that she lost both the species of her birth and her last name on a particularly bad wager one night about ten years ago. Get her sauced enough and she’ll tell you at least part of the truth – something to do with a wicked bad break with her extremely well-heeled human family somewhere on the far side of the moon. Personally, I can’t imagine her without the fur, and if she dislikes her life or her job, it never penetrates her perpetual smile.
Fi is enough to make even a happy career woman question her place in the world, however. By the time Rasputin and I arrived, Rio’s grin was sharp and fragile, like a broken wineglass.
“Well,” said Rio. “She’s still not out.”
“I have brought her manager,” said Rasputin. “He is making time out of his very busy schedule to come here, this is true.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying to charm my way past the dig. “Rio, she’s not out of…?”
“Hot pool,” says Rio. “She’s been in there an hour now. Ain’t good for her heart, but it ain’t good for the rest of her if I try an’ wrestle her out of there. Probably re-pull half the tendons in that leg.”
I nodded to her. Rio wasn’t being facetious, either. Fi’s trainer here is a powerful little thing, stronger than she looks, with arms well suited to deep-tissue massage and the forcing of errant joints back in line. And Fi, well. Fi can get welts if you look at her funny. Her harsh coat is pocked and marked with a hundred cosmetic race scars and impacts that only a dip in the tanks can ever erase, and even then, they’re all back within a month. She’s the fastest living thing on Callisto, but mother of the lord is she fragile. Rasputin employs a small platoon of doctors and athletic trainers to keep the beautiful machine that is Bianca Fiore functional.
Up until that point we’d been successful. Fi had never lost a race for us. Not a one. But it was always a strain.
And that was just her body….
Bianca did not look up as I approached. She sat, half-submerged in the swirling water, her posture somehow both slumped and rigid, delicate hands clutching the stainless rails of the hot pool. I clambered up a small set of carpeted stairs to get a good look at her, and even then, she did not meet my gaze.
“Let me guess,” I said, my eyes not leaving her. “It doesn’t want to race.”
“Worse than that,” said Rio. “I don’t know what your uncle told you, but—”
“I tell him,” said Rasputin. “I tell him it is worse than usual.”
I nodded and then leaned out over the water a little. “Hey, dish licker,” I said, raising my hand tentatively and then putting it back on the rail.
“You can touch her,” said Rio, who believes, more than anything, in the power of contact; Rio’s healing hands have rarely let her down. As for me, well.
I shook my head. “Nah,” I said. “Anything I touch, I break.” I took one deep and steadying breath and tried very hard to stamp out thoughts of Fi’s sleek wet form beneath me. Perv, remarked my inner failure screed. Fucking perv.
“Hey,” I said again. “Fi.” I snapped my fingers before her face.
“It does not,” said Bianca Fiore, her face a mask, “want to run.”
I nodded and leaned back from the edge of the hot pool.
“This is pretty standard,” I said. “I’m not sure what you were—”
“You watch, Lemuel,” said Rasputin, clambering up next to me. “Haaay!” he shouted, waving his arms around. “Dish licker! You run in little bit more than one day!”
“It does not want to run,” repeated Fi.
“It dem well better want to run,” said Rasputin. “I do not pay my layabout nephew good money to manage girl who doesn’t—”
“Shedoesnotwanttorace!” shouted Fi, lunging forward, her lip quivering in a snarl. “She. She.”
The force and surprise of it all knocked me off the railside steps. “Holy shit,” I said, picking myself off the floor.
“Language, boy,” said Rasputin, offering me a paw back up to the top of the stairs.
Rio chuckled at us. “Language, no kidding,” said Rio. “Where’d you two panks learn to cuss, a history park?”
“Good curses have staying power,” said Rasputin, unexpectedly kinda-sorta coming to my defense.
“Uh huh,” said Rio. “Oh, forgot to tell ya – I just took a message from the twentieth century, and they want their specialty dialogue back.”
“Mute it, please,” I said, with more than a little annoyance. Then I bit my lip. “Has she ever,” I said, “called herself that before?”
“Nope,” said Rio. “I’ve never heard her call herself anything but ‘it’.” She scratched the back of one leg with the opposing foot and glanced at the clock, doubtlessly ticking off the minutes in her mind. “Th’ lunge is new, too.”
Fi had settled back in the pool, froth from the water gathering again around her boyish chest. I dragged my brain once more back from that brink. Steady, Lemuel.
“Bianca,” I said, “do you want to get something to eat?”
A pause for consideration. “It does,” said Fi, flatly, after a moment.
“It’s going to have to get up,” I said. “We’re not bringing food in here for it to eat.”
“It will get out of the pool,” she said. “But it does not want to run tomorrow. And she does not want to race.”
In my defense, I will explain that there is a little bundle of circuits in a normal person’s brain that keeps them from saying whatever damnfool thing crosses their mind; and that, in the case of Lemuel Meerkat, this particular part was installed by the single lowest bidder.
“Holy lord,” I said, shaking my head, “you are damaged, girl.”
My uncle rolled his eyes. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Rio shoot me with one of her vanishingly rare frowns. Bianca, however, appeared unmoved.
“It is not damaged,” Fi said, eventually. “It is a good worker.”
“If it’s such a damn good worker, it’s going to race for us tomorrow. It is going to have to show us what a good worker it is.”
Bianca closed her eyes. A full minute ticked past.
Then, with easy grace, the impossibly slick and slender form of my racing Greyhound leveraged itself out of the hot pool, a cynocephalic Renaissance goddess emerging from the surf. Her chin, as always, was high.
“Towels, Rio,” I said. Rio obliged, still looking a little pissed at me but holding her tongue. It’s always hard to argue with actual results, no matter how one obtains ’em. “Fi, are we good, here? Are you with us?”
Fi did not respond. I persisted. “Is she going to race for us?”
“She is not,” said Fi. Rasputin coughed.
“That’s okay!” I said, giving my uncle a warning glare. “That’s okay. Fi, you and I are going to get something to eat. I am even going to pay for it, because I am one hell of a nice guy. Maybe when we get done with dinner, things’ll look different, and we can—”
“It will run for you,” Bianca said.
“…and, maybe we can instantly reassess the situation right here on the spot,” I finished, smoothly. “So we’re good, you’re our girl now?”
“It said,” Fi repeated, a note of petulance creeping into her voice, “it will run for you.”
Rio shrouded the goddess in chamois. “C’mon, love,” said Rio, escorting her away. “Let’s get you to the lockers.”
Rasputin watched them go. I did not; my eyes were firmly fixed on the floor tiles.
“Good,” grunted Rasputin. I looked up at him, a little startled; praise from my uncle is a rare candle.
And, as it turned out, a brief one. “Should have been done about an hour back,” he continued.
I gestured angrily in the direction of the locker room. “She… is out… of the tub.” My point made, I turned on my heel, hopped off the platform, and stalked off in the direction of the door. “My work here is done.”
“Where do you go now?” Rasputin called out after me.
“I am going,” I said, “to get dressed for dinner.”
In the end, we went to Hara’s, mostly because it thought it could get something it wanted there. The Lacuna corporation is pretty big on the whole Nordic theme, this being Valhalla Crater and all, but if there’s one thing that Scandinavians and their ilk aren’t known for, it’s their fine cuisine. Conquering and pillaging ancient Earth, check. Huge pink muscular fellas with war hammers, check. Thunder, lightning, femmy hairstyles on dudes, check check check. But food? Forget about it.
As always, the Irish are here to save the day, bearing gifts of meat, potatoes, cabbage, and lots and lots of hearty beer. On occasion, I’ve even given a big ol’ screw-you to the meat and veggies, because the right sort of beer can serve as an excellent lunch all by itself.
Tonight, though, I was in the mood for actual food food. I desperately wanted the buffet, but Gert wasn’t on shift. Gert and I have an understanding whereby she assists me with the whole buffet thing, which, like everything else in this den of sin and iniquity, is built about three sizes too large for cute little ol’ Lemuel. And, well, it’s always uncomfortable to talk about this sort of thing with a stranger. I contented myself with short ribs and horseradish sauce, the ribs blackened almost to charcoal, exactly per specs.
Bianca, clad now in a sensible v-neck pullover, had vexed our mustelid waitress for a few minutes trying to explain what it was it wanted.
“Protein,” she said. “Vitamins. That is what it wants.”
“Okay!” said our waitress, whiskers all a-twitch and, incidentally, really earning her tip. “We’ve got things that have protein in them!”
In the end, it apparently settled on an undressed chicken Caesar and a pile of tortillas, with a mineral water chaser. Hara’s prepared the thoroughly non-Irish meal with good grace and our hostess served us both with a smile. We ate for quite a while in silence, the noise of our munching the only dinner conversation.
“So, um,” I said, eventually. “You want to talk about what happened back there?”
Fi studiously loaded up another tortilla with lettuce and meat. “It didn’t want to race,” she said, her gaze never elevating beyond plate level.
“But now it does.”
“It said so, yes.”
“There have been times it hasn’t wanted to race before,” I said, in what I hoped was a gentle tone of voice. “It’s never been so angry about it.”
Bianca nodded, the gesture barely visible. Somewhere off to my right, I could see a conversation, a half-concealed finger point coming from a couple at another booth. For all her lack of showmanship, Bianca Fiore was something of a legend on the Valhalla Greyhound course, and even in civvies she cut enough of a figure that people would sometimes recognize her. Under Rasputin’s management, now, the Maitre D’ would have known of Fi’s imminent arrival for several hours beforehand. When it finally happened, her entrance would have been carefully choreographed, Rasputin playing up each instant for maximum exposure. Bianca Fiore walking into a room used to be something of an event, and if “it” ever objected to this sort of grandstanding, she never showed it.
I’d like to say that I stopped all that when Rasputin turned over management duties to me (keeping the actual contract squarely in his corner, mind you) because of some great and powerful concern I had for Bianca’s well-being, but truth to tell I personally just hated the hullabaloo. When I go out to dinner, I want to go out to dinner, to eat in peace. I have been known to boycott establishments for years if they so much as bring the waiters around to sing me a birthday song. That shit does not fly, not in Lemuel World.
“She was angry, yes,” said Bianca.
My attention was so abstracted that I nearly missed the reappearance of the new pronoun. “See, there. There.” I gestured at her with a clean-sucked short rib. “What is that you’re doing, now?”
Bianca stared forlornly down at the sandwich she’d assembled, as though trying to discern how to eat it. “She talks about herself,” she said, at last.
“It’s different,” I said, then forked up some baked potato and chewed on in thoughtfully for a moment. “I can’t say as I enjoy the attendant screaming and thrashing, but all in all I have to say I kind of like the change.”
“It is still here,” said Fi, somewhat inexplicably.
I nodded. “And that’s good,” I said, vaguely. “It’s good. But you’re not an ‘It’, Bianca. You’re a ‘She’. Maybe even a ‘You’, even.”
“Yes,” said Bianca, her words carrying the definite air of not actually being in response to mine.
“So… it’s good to hear you moving away from the ‘It’ thing,” I said, trying to rejeep my position in the conversation as though it were a topo map.
“It is still here,” said Fi, again.
“Right,” I said, definitely losing ground now. Fi took a bite of tortilla and chewed, starting in on her requisite thirty. It’s always thirty chews before swallowing. Precisely.
…I watch this girl a lot. Sometimes she doesn’t even realize how much I watch her. Or maybe she does. Holy lord, is this ever coming off creepy.
“Right,” I said, trying to shake off the clouds. “It’s still here.”
“Excuse me,” said a voice, nearby. Human. I recognized him as the point-er from before. He was tall and thin with hair going to gray, which, in This Modern World, meant that’s exactly how he wanted it to look. The prominent pad and stylus marked him as a collector. “Are you Bianca Fiore?”
“Yep,” I said, on her behalf. “And are you an intrusive dickweed?”
Intrusive Dickweed, or “I.D.” for short, seemed a bit taken aback. “I, um,” he said, his pad and stylus faltering a bit. “I was just wondering if—”
“The girl doesn’t sign autographs,” I said. “I will swear to you that this is the truth and I am not trying to give you the dustoff. Miss Fiore doesn’t like it when—”
“Yes,” Fi said, suddenly, one of her rare and valuable smiles playing at the very edge of her jet-dark lips. “She would very much like to.”
As I looked on in mild astonishment, Bianca took I.D.’s pad into her hands and gave it a quick manual authentication. She then handed it back, the tiny looped and scribbled pattern of her name glowing gold against the green surface.
“Thanks,” said I.D., hitting the Store key. “Thank you. I just wanted to say, you’re really something out there, and if you ever—”
“No, thank you,” I said, pointedly, hopping down off the little booster seat that I was using to bring myself to table level, and then out of the booth entirely. “Thank you for your interest.” I continued, trying to manhandle him away from the table. People have to really be in a cooperative mood for my manhandling to have much of an effect. Thankfully, I.D. already had his prize, and didn’t really resist. “G’bye. Please bet heavily. Shoo. Go on.”
Once I.D. had returned to his soup or whatever, I hopped back up onto my seat. I studied Bianca for a minute.
“Wow,” I said. “Red-letter day for you, huh?”
“She likes to give autographs,” said Fi.
“She didn’t used to,” I replied, pointedly.
“She always has,” Fi insisted.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Well, she can go ahead and give out all the autographs she wants after she wins her race for us tomorrow.”
A shadow passed over Bianca’s fair features, and I sensed that I had said the wrong thing, but I’d have been damned to figure out what it was. We sat in silence for a while, finishing our plates.
“Weird,” she said, eventually, her voice grim.
“What?” I said, fishing around in my kit in search of my mandatory after-dinner nic.
Bianca did not respond.
“What?” I pressed, looking up from my rummaging. “What? What’s weird?”
Again with the silence thing. I shifted agitatedly in my seat-riser. “What?” I repeated. “Bianca, what’s weird?” I cocked my head at her. “Come on, I’m a grown man in a high chair. You can tell me.”
Bianca smiled for real, then, bright enough to make your heart ache. It lasted for about half a second before it dulled and clouded under self-effacement, but it was there. There is nothing quite like that smile in this whole broad system.
“Weird,” she said, long and slow, pedagogical. You could tell, that time, that the pronunciation was a little off. “With a ‘Y’.”
“Wyrd?” I attempted – as it turns out – correctly. “W-Y-R-D?”
“Yes,” said Bianca.
“Okay,” I said, finally retrieving my atomizer. “What’s ‘wyrd’?”
“Everything,” said Bianca. “She. It. Everything.”
“Fi, I don’t understand,” I said, more helpless than frustrated.
“She will show you, some day,” said Fi. And that was that.
“Okay, whatever,” I said, taking a drag off the nic, now more frustrated than helpless. “Let’s not think about ’someday’, a’right? Let’s just… just keep our minds on the race tomorrow.”
“She is not,” said Fi, in tones of finality, “going to race.”
It was half the fault of her pronouncement and half the fault of my terrible nic blend, but the results were congruent. I was lost for a moment in a paroxysm of coughing.
“Sorry?” I said, my voice all a-strangle.
“She is not going to race.”
“But you—” I began. “You said that—”
“No,” said Fi.
Frustration began giving way to anger. “Look,” I said, gesturing at her with the nic. “Bianca. My uncle really likes to see returns on his investments, and he’s spent a small fortune on you. Yes?”
“It always wins for him,” said Fi, darkly.
“Yes,” I said. “It does. And, don’t get me wrong, that’s great. It’s wonderful. We love it when you win.” I scooted forward in my damn kiddie seat. “But this isn’t a race, Bianca. It’s a game. People don’t want a sure thing. They want uncertainty. Lacuna Gaming wants uncertainty. Why do you think they always insist on loading you down with grav coils?”
“Do not,” said Fi, her ears flattening, “remind her of this.”
“The grav coils are there,” I said, “because you are too damn good. You were practically paying out even for a while there. Remember?”
I flicked the atomizer back on and took a long drag. “You,” I said, “are a foregone conclusion. You run. You win. You run again. You don’t squat to help us generate buzz. You’ve got no alliances, no showy rivalries. Hell, half the time you’re out there pretending the crowd doesn’t even exist. Lacuna is bored with you, Fi. Do you know how many posts you have tomorrow?”
I raised what could charitably be termed my eyebrows at her, but if I was expecting a response, I was disappointed. “You’ve got a post tomorrow. One. And up next to the time, the money, the sheer manpower we are sinking into you, you are barely turning a profit.”
Fi sat back in her seat, quivering, emotion uncertain.
I made the decision to soldier on. I leaned in. “And that, Miss Bianca Fiore, is why the winningest dog in the history of this entire fucking facility needs to be at her single solitary god-damned post tomorrow.”
Suddenly, there was a twirl of white, and Bianca Fiore was gone. Without word, and virtually without sound.
Some time passed.
I dropped my chin into my hand. “Holy lord, Lemuel,” I muttered. “Holy, holy lord.”
“Here we are,” said the waitress, emerging from the back and depositing the bill on the table. I waved it off like a housefly.
“Take it back,” I said. “I’m getting some more drinks.”
I was comfortably liquored by the time I ventured back down to the main floor, hoping to catch Rio on her way home from work. I intercepted the coyote-woman right in the middle of World Tree Plaza, there in the shadow of the enormous California redwood that Lacuna had hauled here all the way from Terra back before the walls went up.
“Rio!” I said, huffing a little from exertion that is, I maintain, in no way related to the fact that I spend several minutes every day sucking poison directly into my lungs.
Rio turned to me, and her smile was sardonic. “Lemuel,” said Rio. “The face everyone’s been talking about. Y’have fun making a scene this afternoon?”
“Look,” I said, “I don’t know what Bianca told you, but… okay, first, yes, it’s true, I’m a cock.”
“Nothing we didn’t know.”
“Nothing we didn’t know,” I agreed. “That having been said, it is not just me and there is something the matter with that girl. She is moodier than ever. She’s lashing out. She’s racing. She’s not racing. She’s hopping from ‘it’ to ‘she’ and back again faster than I can keep up, and I can’t think of a single reason why this all this shit is going down right this instant.”
Rio looked down at me. Her eyes were troubled.
“There’s a reason,” I said, “why all this shit is going down right this instant. Isn’t there.”
“You’re her manager,” said Rio, sweeping back into the training office, the lights blinking dutifully back on in the presence of moving objects. “It wouldn’t kill ya to, y’know, actually look at the numbers from time to time, copes?”
“I’m busy,” I lied. “With very important things.”
“Uh huh,” said Rio. “Anyway, I think everyone presumed you knew about this already.” Rio’s clawed fingers danced for a moment across a touch-sensitive panel, the room lights faded once more to dark, and a tiny ceiling projector whirred to life, casting a confusing matrix of figures onto the far wall.
I studied it in what I desperately hoped was a thoughtful and intelligent manner. “What are we looking at here?” I asked, after a time.
“Handicap,” said Rio, bringing a cursor up on the screen. “This is the handicap spread for tomorrow’s posts. And here,” she said, indicating a particular line, “is post fourteen.”
“Fi’s one post tomorrow,” I said, desperate to contribute something to the discussion.
“Correct,” said Rio. “Now, you see here, these are the stats on the grav coils all the rest of the racers are going to be carrying tomorrow.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“…An’ here’s Fi.”
Rio’s cursor hovered on the offending figure. It jutted out from its fellows like some kind of geologic anomaly.
“Wow,” I said, not even remembering to swear.
“Uh huh,” said Rio.
“Holy shit,” I said, recovering my faculties a little. “No wonder she’s more broken than usual. They’re making her race with that?”
“It’s the only way Lacuna thought she might merit two-to-one odds. They’re tired of the sure bet, Lemuel.”
“But that’s… that’s like me,” I said, trying to find a comparison. “That’s multiple me’s.” I squinted at the figure. “Hell, that’s almost you.”
“I know,” said Rio. “Ain’t nobody ever raced with that sort of load on. Not a soul.”
I shook my head, still not quite believing it. “I knew she ran high, but this….”
“Gets higher every time she wins,” said Rio. “Which is every time. Tomorrow’s load is a quantum step up, though. Dunno what’s goin’ through the racing secretary’s head with this.”
I studied the chart. My eyes began to water under the abuse of the sharp contrast. A few errant dust motes floated sullenly across the projector beam.
“They’re trying to break her,” I said.
“They’re trying to give the others a fair shot,” said Rio, magnanimously. “To a certain extent, you can’t hardly blame ’em.”
“No,” I said. “This is vindictive. They’re singling her out.”
I turned to Rio, then, all round-eyed and piteous. “Rio,” I said, “it’s not fair.”
“It’s exactly as fair as Lacuna says it is,” said Rio. “Whatcha gonna do about it?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” I said, slowly, the wheels in my head beginning to lock into place. “I am getting the very strong feeling, Rio, that it is not going to race for us tomorrow.”
Amusingly enough, my uncle gave me – pretty much word-for-word – the same harangue I had recently subjected Fi to over the wreckage of our early dinner. A couple things were changed; in Rasputin’s version, Fi and I were both to blame for her embarrassingly low profit margins. He came down hard on Fi’s abysmal injury record and my complete lack of showmanship skills. He added that did I remember how Fi was under contract to him and did not technically have a choice as to whether or not to race, and I said tough tits to that, I’ll pay the breach penalty myself. And he said, with what money, and I said maybe I’ll take it out on loan from you, which was probably not the smartest thing to say, but we eventually hashed it out in contract. The term “indentured servitude” was thrown about. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a thing.
Afterward, I went out and got even drunker.
I was awakened out of my alcohol-fueled slumber by a thin, high voice.
“Lemuel,” said the voice, and it was Bianca’s. The dream I had been having dissolved leaving no trace or memory and I struggled my way back to consciousness. There she was, right next to my bed. Bianca Fiore, a ghostly and needle-faced apparition in a seam-front hoodie.
I coughed up something vile and tried to ascertain whether or not I was still dreaming. “Bianca?” I said, blinking the gum out of my eyes.
“She said she would show you the wyrd some day,” said Bianca, simply, her tail wagging a tiny bit. “That day is this one.”
I tried to focus on the clock on my bedroom display and swore quietly at the earliness. I was tired and woozy and every part of me was screaming out to tell Bianca to go away and stop back at a more reasonable and less drunk hour, but something stopped me. There was something about her bearing which said, Lemuel, this is more important than you being intoxicated. I muttered a vague assent, hauled myself out of my rumpled bed, took a hair of the dog that was eventually planning to bite me and then went to the toiletry stand and started cleaning my teeth.
“How’d you get in?” I said.
“The door was unlocked,” said Bianca. “And open. And you went pee on it.”
I grunted, dredging the memory up from the sludge. “Yeah,” I said, eventually. “I did, didn’t I.”
“Yes,” said Fi.
I eventually, through some effort, got myself looking like a civilized meerkat again. I made a quick call to the building’s sanitation staff in re: the pee stain outside the door, told them to put it on my tab, and we were off, Bianca in the lead, me in tow.
“Where are we going?” I asked, once we were on the moving walkway of Fi’s selection.
“Lacuna,” said Fi.
“What, corporate H.Q.?” I said. “That’s the other direction, Fi.”
“No,” she replied, once again not making it clear as to whether she was in disagreement or denial. I saw no real point in continuing the line.
We slipped through mirror-bright intersection after mirror-bright intersection, and I found my familiarity with our location fading with each passing meter. It’s funny how you can live for years in a place like this and get the concept into your head that you know it from stem to stern, and then, boom, one wrong turn or strange middle-of-the-night encounter later, you’re someplace completely new.
The crowds thinned out, after a time, and eventually it was just me and Fi, gliding smoothly along, with only the security cameras to keep us company. Eventually, I started seeing nav signs that bore the less-than-wholly-descriptive words, “The Lacuna”.
“The Lacuna?” I asked, looking up at Fi.
“Not the company?”
“No,” she said, as unhelpful to me as the signs.
Eventually, we got off the walkway at a tiny, well-kept elevator lobby. The light here was dim and muted. A brace of elevators at the far end of the room was attended to by a single human security guard wearing Lacuna Gaming Corp colors. He was alert but clearly bored. If there was a right outfielder position for Lacuna security, this was the guy that drew it. He brightened and hitched himself up as Fi approached, and she gave him a quick nod and a regulation pad authentication. I didn’t recognize the logo that flashed across her pad’s tiny screen.
“Evening, Miss Fiore,” said the guard.
“Good evening to you,” she said, pleasantly.
I looked up at the two of them. After all I’d been through with her recently, seeing Bianca have a reasonably normal interaction with another sapient was honestly something of a shocker.
The guard ushered us through to the lift, which arrived quickly. Once inside, Bianca touched the single selection panel available, and we began to descend.
“Bianca,” I said, “where are we going?”
“Lacuna,” she said. “To explain what is ‘wyrd’ to you.”
“Why are we doing this?”
Bianca pondered my question for some time. I was beginning to think she had misheard or merely ignored me, when finally she spoke up. “She is touched,” she said.
“What, me buying you out of the race tomorrow?” I felt a sudden little worm of pride in my gut.
“Yes,” said Bianca.
“Eh,” I said, modestly, waving my hand. “It’s nothing. Nobody should have to run dragging that much grav. It’s inhumane. I’m gonna have me a little chat with the race authority when they open up tomorrow, see if we can’t fix something for the future. But tomorrow, Miss Fiore, you are officially on vacation.”
“Mm,” said Fi.
Sheepishness then replaced my bravado. “I, um,” I said. “I didn’t know about the wicked handicap when we talked over lunch.”
“She knows you did not,” said Bianca. “You do not pay much attention to her at all.”
“I’m a busy guy,” I said, carting out the old chestnut.
“She is certain you are,” said Bianca.
We continued to descend, and when we finally stopped, we stepped out into another world.
If this were some sort of fan-fiction about my life, you, the author, would doubtlessly not pass up the opportunity to have the character of Lemuel Meerkat utter the words “Holy shit!” upon first seeing the Lacuna. You would be perfectly justified in doing so, and no one would think any less of you for it. But the fact is, when I first stepped into the Lacuna, I made not a sound. It was, in fact, some time before I could speak.
Words cannot describe the Lacuna, and yet I am given the unenviable task of doing just that, so strap in and let me give ’er a try. Bianca and I found ourselves in a cathedral-sized cavern of natural silicate rock, whose walls were covered, every inch, by a breathtaking array of sacred mosaics. Some were formal constructions of carefully set and polished tiles; others were challenging baroque monstrosities made of imported shells and water-tossed wood; still others were literally made of cast-off junk, fragments of green bottle-glass and shattered dishes, bits of mineral refuse arranged into something whole and sublime. Tasteful lighting, both reverent and practical, illuminated some of the more striking pieces, from before and, in the case of several heart-stoppingly gorgeous stained-glass assemblages, behind.
An elevated catwalk snaked its way through the cavern, disappearing at times between stone-encrusted buttresses of rock. The only noise, aside from some soft and remarkably unobtrusive mood music piped in from hidden speakers, was the sound of our breathing and our footfalls.
“Mother of the lord,” I squeaked, at last. “Is this – was this always here?”
“Not always,” said Fiona. “It is older than the place above, though. If that is what you ask. It is the reason the place above exists.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, in a phrase that later went on to win an Honorable Mention at the sixteenth annual “Understatement of the Year” awards on Ganymede. “Why don’t I know about this already? Why doesn’t everyone I know know about this?”
Fi shrugged. “People once came to see the mosaics. Then people came to see the mosaics and be entertained by the races above. Then people came to see the mosaics and be entertained by the races above and to play in the casinos and eventually people did not come to see the mosaics any more.”
I was so thunderstruck by the wonder that was the Lacuna I hardly noticed that Fi had just delivered the longest single sentence she had ever spoken in my presence. “Wow,” I said. “How come… how come you know about it?”
“It is a holy place for her church. The church she belongs to. All you see here is all the work of one man, the First Believer. Here in the Lacuna he had his Vision.”
“Unbelievable,” I said. I pointed at one of the mosaics, bearing the image of a serene-looking figure. “So, what, is that Jesus or something?”
“Baldr,” corrected Fi. “But possibly, Jesus also. And others, through history. It is the Good Man Betrayed, the One Coming Again. The God you know is probably here somewhere.”
“I don’t, um,” I said, faltering. “I’m not really a religious person.”
Fi looked at me, a little confused. “Who is your ‘holy lord’?”
I took a breath to speak but wasted it on a grunt as I caught my toe on the path; the alcohol was still affecting my coordination a little. “That’s… that’s swearing, Fi,” I said, recovering my balance. “Family tradition. Don’t have to believe a thing to curse about it.”
“Mm,” said Fi, continuing to walk.
I followed along in silence.
“So….” I said, eventually. “‘Wyrd’?”
“She comes to it shortly,” said Fi. “Here. Ahead.”
Around a turn in the path, we came upon a window of glass, in the ecclesiastic style. Three women, probably human – though one sported an impressive pair of wings – stitching and weaving a great and colorful tapestry, beside a well at the foot of a great tree. A pair of swans sat serenely in the background. Like everything I’d seen in the Lacuna, it was a work of remarkable craftsmanship. A small wooden bench graced the edge of the catwalk, and I clambered up on it to get a better view.
“Urd,” said Fi, pointing to one of the figures. “Verdandi. Skuld.”
“Wait, wait, I’ve heard this one,” I said. “Three immortal weavers, forever working on the fabric of history. They know everything that’s going to happen before it happens. It’s Greek, right?”
“Yes,” said Fi. “These are Norns instead. But it is the same. This is wyrd.”
“Wyrd… is fate?”
Fi shrugged a fraction of a centimeter, noncommittal.
“Destiny?” I tried again.
“It is the past,” she said. “It is the past that affects what is and will be.” She pointed, and I followed her finger to a thin line of darkness stained onto the glass, one of the woven threads of the tapestry. “There is a thread in the weft,” she said. “Part of it is done, the past. Now everyone can see it. And there,” she said, pointing again, “is the end of the thread, not yet woven.”
“You can’t see what it’s going to look like yet,” I said. “But it’s there, and it’s always going to be there….” I screwed up my face a little. “…because it’s already half woven in.”
“Yes,” said Fi, again.
“Fi, is it your destiny to win? Is that what you’re saying?”
Fi closed her eyes. “It is wyrd that she tries to please,” she said. “And that whenever she pleases, the next time is harder. And harder still.”
“The handicap,” I said. “The more you win, the more weight you pull.”
“Yes,” said Fi. “She cannot keep up. Soon, all that is left is It.”
The ambient music in the Lacuna switched tracks. In the commisure, there came a moment of silence.
“You weren’t flip-flopping on me at all,” I said, the realization coming to me in the sudden clarity of the truly alcoholic. “You were trying to tell me you have different parts, with different ideas of what should go on tomorrow.”
“Yes,” said Bianca.
“There’s an It in your body,” I said, warming quickly on the idea. “The It, it’s… it’s your machine. Your habits, your training, your conditioning.”
“It is fear, as well,” said Bianca.
“Right, okay,” I said. “But there’s a She in there, somewhere, too. She isn’t the machine. She cares. She wants to make people happy. And we never heard from her, until we threatened her with enough weight that she thought she could never possibly win for us.”
Fi nodded, silently, her eyes still closed.
“She isn’t going to race tomorrow,” I said.
“But It is going to,” Fi finished. “It would run for you.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head as the music came back up. “No. It isn’t going to. She isn’t going to. Nobody in there is doing anything until we sort this out.”
“It would do this for you, on her behalf,” said Fi, her voice impossibly small, and tremulous. “She wants to please you. You are her manager.”
Without warning, Fi’s hand went to the seam of her shirt and pulled it gently open, exposing the fur and skin beneath. Her breasts were small, flat, barely visible. Her tiny pink nipples budded in the slight chill of the Lacuna. With a soft swish, her shirt fell beside her to the catwalk.
I sucked in a halting breath, feeling my nether quarters respond at the sight of her clean, naked form. I clenched my jaw hard enough to crack a tooth and turned away.
I swallowed, then, fixing my eyes upon the Norns’ implacable visages. “Bianca,” I said. “I… if ever you thought I paid no attention to you, this is why. This is exactly why. There are things that are appropriate and things that are not appropriate and… and I am not blessed with a great deal of willpower, Bianca. Do you understand?”
“She wants to give you,” said Bianca, settling easily on the bench and running one finger across my narrow shoulders, “anything you want. She would run for you. She would lie down for you.”
“Stop it!” I said, batting her hand away. “Bianca, stop it. Believe me, I want this more than anything in the world right now, but….”
I clenched one fist, then composed myself.
“Bianca,” I asked, “I don’t want ‘it’, and I don’t want ‘she’. Damnit, Fi, there has to be a ‘you’ in there somewhere. What do you want?”
Bianca sat back, slowly.
“Not so sure,” she said.
And, so, we were back on solid ground. The blood stopped pulsing in my ears. I hopped off the bench and handed the hoodie back to her, and with quiet grace, she put it back on and closed the seam.
“Somebody hurt you,” I said, the Norns still gazing down at me. “Didn’t they. Somebody hurt you so bad that there’s a little black thread in your tapestry and it’s going to keep showing up, over and over again. It’s your wyrd.”
Bianca nodded again, the gesture almost imperceptible.
“What did they do to you, Bianca? What happened to you before you came to work for Rasputin?”
Bianca said not a word. And I knew right then that there were some secrets about Bianca Fiore that just plain weren’t mine to have.
“It is time to go,” said Bianca. “It must be rested for its race.”
“You aren’t racing,” I said. “I sold my left nut to my uncle so you wouldn’t have to run today.”
“Lemuel,” said Fi, “It wants to run.”
“Uh huh. And what does She want?”
“To race. To win. To make you proud.”
“Okay,” I said. And we walked back to the elevator.
“Last question,” I said, as we stepped into the little cab and started our ascent back to Valhalla. “Bianca, what do you want?”
A gleam came across Bianca’s eyes. She hesitated, and then spoke, and when she did the words came tumbling out like water from over a dam.
“She… I… am a racer, Lemuel. It is my purpose, what I was designed to do, my reason for being alive. It is what I am. I want,” said the beautiful creature at my side, “to be what I am.”
I couldn’t talk for a while. My throat was pretty tight. I always get maudlin when I’m drunk.
“Fi,” I said, at last, “I don’t… when it seems like I’m avoiding you, it’s not just because I’m a horrible letch. It’s because you remind me how good a person can be, and I hate that.”
“You hate potential?”
“I hate being reminded of what I am. A sick, drunk little nobody living on a steady diet of poison. I’m an unsafe building, Fi. A hazard zone. A wreck.”
“You are a good man, Lemuel.”
“Sure,” I said, bile rising in my throat. “Right. Hey, you know what? You know that thing I said, about talking to the race authority? About ‘fixing something for the future’? That was bull. I can’t change Lacuna’s mind. Nobody can. If you race today, if you win, you’re just looking at more grav next time around.”
“Mm,” said Fi.
“They are going to weigh you down, Bianca,” I said. “They will weigh you down and weigh you down until you can hardly walk, let alone run. And you will lose. They will make certain of that.”
“I know,” said Fi.
“Well?” I said, trying to control my tremors.
“I think,” said Fi, “that would break my heart.”
After I walked Bianca back to her quarters in the race building, I spent some time outside, in the pre-dawn outdoors. The sky lamps were just beginning to flicker on, heralding the beginning of the official morning. Here on Callisto, the actual solar morning wouldn’t arrive for another couple days, at least, and as a result, the terraformed atmosphere was clear all the way up to Jupiter, which hung huge and dizzying in the sky. Clouds of ancient gas boiled across its face, and on the far and dark side, I could see a thunderstorm of unimaginable magnitude, its unquiet surface illuminated by arcs of lightning hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kilometers long. It was the picture of my mood, writ celestial.
I threw my paws wide and presented myself to the angry planet above, less a prayer and more an act of prostration to titanic forces beyond the control of one tiny little meerkat.
And then I found that I knew what I had to do.
“You are doing, what is it, now?” said Uncle Rasputin.
“I’m buying her,” I said.
“She isn’t for sale, and I will tell you why. She isn’t for sale because she is a girl, not a slave. You cannot purchase her and you cannot own her.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Semantics. You have her contract. Sell it to me.”
“And what do you do with it, once you have it?”
“Shred it,” I said. “Take her off-world. Find a real race for her to run. She’s a born racer, Rasputin, and Rio says she’s got training and skills for things they don’t even do on Callisto. Way beyond this, this Seven-League Boots shit.” I gestured grandly toward the ceiling of Rasputin’s townhouse. “There are races out there where they don’t penalize success with armloads of grav. There are races where the best can be the best.”
“These are the professional circuits you are speaking of,” said Rasputin.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“There are good racers on the circuits, Lemuel. Good as her. Better, even. She is, what am I trying to say, a big fish in this tiny little lake. You put her on the circuits, she will lose.”
“She’ll lose here, too,” I said. “It’s only a matter of time. At least out there it’ll be because somebody was actually better than her.”
Rasputin thoughtfully stirred sugar syrup into his coffee.
“She needs care. Very delicate, that one.”
“I can find trainers. They exist.”
“Eh, what am I saying,” said Rasputin. “I invest lots of money into that girl.”
“And she’s barely returning,” I said. “Come on, Rasputin. Another year on Callisto will ruin her. You know it as well as I do.”
“And where will you find the money to care for her?”
“Well,” I said, “we’re going to win things.”
Rasputin laughed at me, sharp and barking. “This is the boy’s plan. ‘We will win’.”
I threw my charm into overdrive. “Uncle Rasputin—”
“Do not do with the ‘Uncle Rasputin’ thing, Lemuel. You do not even have the money in the first place to pay me for her contract, saying nothing of her care and feeding.”
Awright, I thought. One-in-a-million time. “Stating the obvious, here, Rasputin, but you can set your own price. You could sell it to me for a single em if you wanted.”
“You even have an em to give me?”
“Yes,” I said, defensively.
“She is worth a million times more,” said Rasputin. “Speediest dish-licker on Callisto.”
“Do it,” I said, locking my eyes on his, “out of the goodness of your heart.”
We stared at each other for half a moment.
And then, another barking laugh. “Oh, Lemuel,” said Rasputin. “When I was your age I do things from the goodness of my heart. Now, I do things from the goodness of my pocketbook.”
I sagged. “Rasputin….” I began.
“It is time for my program,” said Rasputin glancing at the time and then ushering me out. “You go, now.”
I offered no resistance as Rasputin escorted me to his front door. At the threshold, a look akin to actual tenderness crossed his face.
“Lemuel, you are young, tired and infatuated. No ever good decision comes from these three things. Take some time. Think it over.”
Rasputin paused. “This reminds me,” he continued. “Have you yet spoken to the race authority? About how it is our dish licker is not running today?”
“She’s going to run,” I said.
“She’s running?” said Rasputin, a note of incredulity entering his voice.
“You pay me all these penalty fees. You put yourself, well, further, in debt to me. You move heaven and earth so the girl does not have to run under this handicap that she’s rightfully earned, and now, girl is going to race anyway?”
I nodded. “It’s who she is, Rasputin.”
“Eh, program is crep lately,” he said, turning around. “Come back inside, Lemuel. There are things we need to discuss.”
And so, that brings us to… now.
I stand at the rim of the track, the spectator’s edge of Valhalla Raceway. The lights are bright around me, the crowd susurrant with excitement. Statistics burn in the sky and free-floating holographic panels display live images of the yet-empty far corners of the track, those out of unaugmented sight. The voice of the race caller booms out like that of the Metatron. All is glitter and glory.
…at least, I have to presume all of this is the case. In reality, I am tuning most of it out. Aside from the conversation of the two men seated nearby, the only thing I can see, the only thing on this world to me, is Number Eight, Bianca Fiore. I call her ‘Fi’, for short.
The lights are not so bright that Bianca cannot see into the stands. For a moment, the emptiness of her expression clears, and though she tries to conceal the gesture, I can see her scanning the crowd, looking for someone. Looking for me.
My heart feels full to bursting. I wave, trying to catch her eye, and it works. She sees me. She smiles.
The caller announces her name. With a dramatic flourish – a flourish she has never displayed before this day – she drops her violet surplice, and suddenly she is blinding in red and white. The kinetic amplifiers at her ankles are fulgent orange, and the pads of the magnetic stabilizers at her wrists glow a serene yellow. I study her face for a hint of strain, a piece of hurt, but if the terrible weight of the handicaps she carries has wounded her psyche, there is no trace of it upon her beatific countenance. For the first time in recent memory, she is not staring down the barrel of ever-increasing fetters. She knows, just as I do, that after tonight she is getting out of this business, and moving on to a business entirely new. Her body is prepared to run. Her mind is determined to excel, to succeed, for the sake of the crowds that will shortly cheer her on. And, most important of all, her soul – for lack of a better word – is exactly where it wants to be.
There is nothing like her. She is one in a million.
Bianca Fiore takes her place at the post. There is the sound of a siren.
The race commences.
And then, there comes another now. Rio and Bianca and I, clad in shipclothes, here on the floor of the primary embarkation lounge of Callisto’s lone spaceport at New Stockholm. Rasputin is here, too, sending us off. Rio’s heavy gear has been stowed as cargo, and all we have left are our personal kits and carry-on bags. We will unload again after the short hop to Io. And from there… well, who knows? We’ve got some leads. The future is uncertain, but tremulously, hesitantly, bright.
“You remember you are under contract to me,” says Rasputin, as sentimental as ever. “You win purses, I get my share. I will be watching the news like an eagle.”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “We’re not going to welsh you.”
“Dem well better not,” Rasputin replies. “This is new sort of experimental business venture for me. I pour lots and lots of good money into you people. I hire dish licker’s favorite trainer for full-time indefinite gig, hopping all around the solar system. I hire nephew to do, what, again? What is it you do, Lemuel?”
“I’m her manager,” I say, smirking.
“You better be her manager. You do piss-poor job so far on Callisto. Maybe you do better out in the great wide open, maybe you do not. Remains to be seen.” He shrugs. “But what do I know? I have obviously gone funny in the head in my old age. Paying for dubious manager and full-time private trainer.”
“We agreed,” I say, “that wherever she goes, Bianca needs someone on staff who knows her history.”
“Need more than just one trainer, for that one.”
“We’ll contract them,” says Rio, reassuringly.
Rasputin grunts. “Dish licker will need to learn teamwork, too,” he says. “Very few solo races out there in the pro leagues, yes? Will need to attend tryouts. You will need to arrange these things, Lemuel.”
“I know,” I say.
Rasputin fixes his glare on Fi, then. “And what about you, dish licker? My strange nephew has somehow convinced you that out there….” Rasputin gestures in the direction of the hangar. “…that out there, racing is pure. He is mistaken. No handicaps, true, but people are going to want a show. Is not just speed. Is attracting an audience. So what is it, dish licker? What is your special gimmick?”
“She runs,” says Fi, simply. “Very, very fast.”
“Huh,” says Rasputin. “Will have to work on that, I think.” He purses his lips. “All right, you all go now. Go away before I think about how much money is leaving my hands right now, never to return. But first, Lemuel, a word?”
I look uncertainly up at my soon-to-be traveling companions. Rio shrugs. Fi’s attention has been snagged by the departures board and she is paying me little mind.
I walk over to my uncle. He puts an arm around my shoulders and pulls me close.
“I think,” he says, “you make some good decisions.”
And then he shakes me off and is gone, lost to the crowds. I watch him go, a terribly peculiar feeling rising in my chest. I’m not sure I can even describe it here for you, but for better or for worse, it certainly feels wyrd. I turn back to Rio and Fi, then, and grin at them like a madman.
“All right, ladies,” I say, clapping my paws together. “Let’s go show ’em what we can do.”