From Tritcheon Hash.
“Disengage please, Sylvant Hash.”
“Disengaged,” Slvt. Tritcheon Hash answered. “And fucked!” she added.
“I’m sorry?” The reply through the voice feeder was pretending it had missed that last thing.
“Nothing,” Tritch said, switching off the vox. “Nothing. Nothing.”
Blame her impatience on the fact that she’d been sitting in a one-size-fits-all seat for the past six hours. She had spent most of that time trying to revive parts of her body that had fallen asleep. It was an impossible task, since the hemp straps held her securely in place just like the procedural manuals liked it. Straitjacketed without a break in a prototype jet called “Stubbo” had given her ass-cramps. Impatient was an understatement. Tritcheon Hash had reached impatient some time ago and was now taking her misplaced anger out on somebody else. Which is why she swore at the lab stooge on the feeder.
Earlier, an ounce of time after Tritch had strapped herself in with the helmet and all, the doors to the bay had opened revealing a perfect morning. She had watched the birds flying over the pond through her gazer. No cloud hung in the sky; nothing could have been more perfect for a whiz and whir to the beyond. Days like today didn’t come along too often in this neck of the woods. The sink-and-mound topography was humid and overgrown with mangroves and eel grass that the planet planners (over-planners perhaps) had plopped into this section. This was the chief waterfowl production area on the planet, and for some insane reason the overflight test facility got licensed to do its dirty work here.
So every day, amidst the honkers and peepers of the swamp, a bucket or two would fly up and out, wagging its tail feathers in imitation of the real thing pecking away in the duckweed below. This place had beauty to cry for. The toads sang to you, the flamingos danced for you, and once in a while a bog cat would snag a fish, all in the middle of cattails and waterfronds decking the edge of the pond.
The bay. The body of water that would kill you if your ship decided to take a dip and you didn’t expel from it fast enough to reach the safety of the rim. Seems dumb to plant a body of water just beyond the lip of the liftout pad, but in reality United Capstan (U.C.)—Stubbo’s owners—was way beyond slick. The ships would survive the crash into water, even if the pilot wound up with a broken back and waterlogged lungs.
So today had started out perfect, with the sunlight gleaming off the water and the humidity low. Who could have known such a robust portent would be so misleading? No progress to speak of had been made since those glorious beginnings, except that Tritch had become increasingly cranky.
A gravelly, cynical voice deep inside her, originating probably in the fleshy portion of her backside or perhaps the bile-filled regions of her gut, nagged her, suggesting she dismount the hog and have somebody give her a call when they were ready. And then another voice—angelic, sitting sweetly on her shoulder, smelling of honeydew and Beaujolais—reminded her that, if she were the one to blow off the gig, they wouldn’t have to pay her for the day even though she’d made it three-quarters of the way through. “That’s what the general contract says,” the second voice cooed. She opted to follow this sage advice, and kept the hemps hunkered in place.
Flicking the talk circle, she cracked into the voice feeder, “Hey there. Hello? You sure this thing is plugged in?”
“Sylvant Hash, we are aware of your discomfort. We must try a few more check-offs before we can list a scrap. Please sit tight and wait for indication.” The lab drone oozed indifference.
“Sure, you bet. I’m right there with you, Baby. But I gotta tell you, my hemorrhoids’re growing by leaps and bounds. I’m going to will them to your first niece when I die. You should have to sit in the same position all day and see how fast you scrap.”
No reply. Not even a grunt for her sarcasm. The unfortunate thing was that, as soon as she said the word hemorrhoids, her asshole started to itch as if a trickle of sweat had run down her back and dripped through the crack—“riding the sphincter,” so to say.
She sat a few brave seconds, pulling her best Zen moves, trying to not think about it. But one can do that for only so long, and Tritch was a poor practitioner at best. In a decidedly capricious move, she unstrapped, then ripped off her glove. Unzipping the back panel of the coot suit, she reached behind herself as best she could, pulling away from the seat back to give herself enough room for a little tweak. The doublewide vestments were not making it easy. Why’d they go with Cansparta™? You’d think these test gigs lasted weeks in the Deluvian outback rather than minutes in the friendly vacuum. Nothicking would have been better, but “rules is rules.” She leaned forward as far as the panel in front of her allowed; just a little bit more, stretch… the… arm… and there… it…
“Engage please, Sylvant Hash!” It was the feeder squawking.
Shit! she thought to herself; she’d almost gotten it.
She slammed her left hand, the gloved one, down on the engage panel and stomped the floor synch—the thing that signaled a “go-ahead” to the girls in the test booth—with her left foot.
“Engaged!” she hollered, struggling to restrap and reglove at the same time just in case the hog did in fact get started up. It was hard going. She had to lean forward to use her left hand, since that was the only one still wearing a glove, and the engage panel was of course situated on the right side. And naturally touching the controls without one’s gloves on was forbidden! To make matters worse, her butt itched worse than ever, driving her nuts. She gave up trying to relieve it and opted to pull the right glove back on with her teeth, followed by a quick hemp restrap.
“Sylvant Hash, are you aware that your panel is engaged? We’re not getting the diffuser light. ‘The diffuser must be in full positation before proceeding to Step A-9.’ ”
Aw, jeez! Now they’re quoting the manual at me, she said to herself. Through the feeder she added, “You bet, baby! Ma’am’s just tuckin’ herself in.”
“Sylvant Hash, are you aware that Safety Instruction 913 states, ‘Unstrapping is not allowed when you are in…’?”
“Yeah, but I noticed a, uh, bop was flickering on the hind quarter. I did a, uh, maintenance stop while I was waiting. No harm done. Sorry.” She hammered the diffuser knob with her right elbow, since the glove was still only half on.
That ought to shut them up, she figured.
“Okay, forget that. We’ve got the light now,” responded the tech, right on cue. “Proceed to check all panels and order sigs.” Tritch heard relief edge out the monotone in the technician’s voice. It was the first indication that the drone was indeed human. She laughed a little; she was not above a sadistic thrill.
Mashing the floor synch with each successful check-off, Tritch raced through the start-up procedure. She couldn’t believe the machine was actually beginning to function. She’d see water and maybe even space after all. The girls were something special!
She felt the throb of the hog warming up as the silent engine yawned into wakefulness. The air circulators were blasting now that the ship was, check by check, taking control out of human hands. With each new click and hum she followed the progress in her mind. She could almost hear a little guy shoveling coal into a furnace somewhere in the bowels of the tiny tub, or maybe a gerbil on a treadmill, or even a kid with a slingshot. Pictures materialized in her head of whatever magic might go into getting this hunk of Styrofoam spaceborne. Heck, even a scene of the actual plutonium fuel injection waiting for its final check-off played out in her brain for good measure. She thought she felt the ship vibrating into full thrust zone, but realized it was just a piece of metaphor mincing through her imagination. You could always count on the anti-shivers on these hogs; there was never a vibration. Smooth as the proverbial cheese.
But she loved the reverie. She visualized herself on a steed at the starting gate of one of those barbaric horse races of the twenty-first century. Any minute the bell would ring and she’d charge out, leaning forward, whipping the horse’s behind with her baton. She heard a snort and realized it came from herself, not from a pumped-up thoroughbred racing along below. She resisted the urge to push up from her seat only because her foot was needed at the floor synch for the check-offs.
“We’re now in ‘B’ status, Sylvant Hash. Prepare for rod pull-back.” The voice feed sounded absolutely ecstatic.
Rod pull back! The plutonium was raring to go—naked and pulsating, no doubt. The right glove was back on by now, straps adjusted “tight for flight,” itchy butt forgotten in the anticipation of a lift-out.
“Nozzle exposed. Ready for final count. Just waiting for the lighterator feedback; then we’re ready to go.”
Tritch, fairly drooling, kept her eyes glued to all ten readouts at once—even the one behind her head. She licked her lips to relieve the tension.
The lighterator wouldn’t be fully tested until she got into space, but it had to be checked off now, as later would be too late. Obviously. No sense in flying off into the wide-open vacuum if the ol’ lighterator couldn’t lighterate. Right?
A big “A-OK” on the lighterator doohick would signal the release of her tail anchor and she’d be on her fabulous own. She’d hover for a ten-to-the-neg second, the flag would wave down, the gun would report, the gate would open, the teacher at the front of the room would say, “Class, you may begin,” the preacher would give an “Amen,” there’d be one final scream of Movietone ecstasy, and she’d be off, flying first over the water of the pond and then faster, faster up to the heavens, racing with sound until she overtook it, and then on to space, where she’d go faster than true light, reaching out millions of miles to wherever the brainy ones programmed her to go. Ten minutes later she’d be flipped back 180°, light accelerator test completed. A couple of seconds after that she’d be looking at the pond below her again, her tub slowing to sanity speed and eventually drifting back to the corral like the black mare in the victor’s aisle—spent but in that euphoric state only speed can deliver.
Somewhere in that brief span of time her mouth would go completely dry and the pure wonder of a quickie float would fulfill her weird need—that speed-Jones she had—and make the whole God-itching day worth it for her. The great pay-off was only seconds away now.
She had only to wait for the “check” coming through the feeder. She listened hard to hear the nuances in the click of the switch at the other end. A dull thud would mean negative, but a bright, snappy puck would be optimistic; she wouldn’t even have to wait for the human voice to zip through the tube. She’d respond to the puck before the tech could get the word out, and by the time the sound of the tech’s voice had died down, her tail would be up and free.
All she had to do was wait for the puck.
A pause ensued—a dreadful silence where it seemed every molecule of this ship and its hangar and all the humans therein held their breaths. Tritch waited. For the puck. The lab tech waited. To send the puck. The entire team of counter-wipers, PhDs, and grease monkeys waited. Was that an analog alarm clock she heard ticking over on the nightstand? The world was poised, waiting for the waking puck.
and-a… and-a… and-a
“We’re getting a negative on that lighterator, Sylvant Hash. Sorry. We’re scrapping. Thank you for the time. The day is yours.”
She heard, or rather felt, the voice feeder being tuned down on the other end.
The day is yours? They didn’t even wait for a response. “Bastards!”
Tritch slumped back in her seat, exhausted from the near-climax, unable to move for disbelief. And again: “Bastards!”
Finally she lifted her head and, forking two fingers, pulled the disengage plug up and out. Powered down, she slowly unstrapped herself, still in a daze. Her body regained consciousness, organ by organ, with her asshole reigning supreme as it decided to resume its previously forgotten flaming. Disregarding composure, she tore off the coot suit and gave herself a ripping yank.
After the blessed scratch she climbed out of the tub and headed for the time clock. Over to the side, in heavy discussion with the project coordinators, the lead engineer—Hanklish—was agitated.
Tritch couldn’t help herself. “Hey, Doc, nice ride. Had a really great time; thanks for the call. Remind me to skip the premo party.”
All the labcoats standing around chuckled uneasily. She didn’t mean to be a hardass. As long as she wasn’t the one to scrap, she got paid whether the bucket caught air, terrain, vacuum or a cold, so what’s the diff? The diff is that there’s nothing worse than sitting stuck at the starting gate, even if the circulators are pumping aesthetically pleasing air at full volume. Sometimes the cards need to be dealt after they’ve been shuffled, is all.
Truth be told, after fourteen years of flying, Tritch still got a dance in the crotch every detach as if it was the first time her baby-flyer took off back at Academe. When she was denied the rush after being handed the plum, she got edgy. Following the non-progress all day left her crabbed and sarcastic. Doc Hanklish was a good nag and Tritch hadn’t meant to add the oh-two to the fire but… but sometimes her mouth got the better of her. She’d apologize tomorrow.
The thought of doing the whole thing again tomorrow depressed her, and she seriously hoped there was a message waiting for her when she got home saying the pig was going back to the barn for testing. She’d been booked for the week, and if the gig was canceled she wouldn’t get full pay due to a weakness in the union’s job-cancellation clause (i.e., they forgot to put one in), and she more than likely wouldn’t be able to get another job for the remainder of the stretch—but so what? A day or two off posed no burden.
Speeding home in her 50-kilo stainless steel jizzie at a hundred cycles over the limit with the pitch-black lid of night surrounding her, she kept the film in her head reeling. Except the film was now taking a turn for the worse. The horse in the starting gate and the cool, dark ecstasy of the vacuum had disappeared. This film was souring into the gloom of reality. It began with a recap of today and recent history.
“Stubbo” was short for Stubbenhaust, named as a nod to the pioneer of the previous century who had discovered the principle of accelerating light. Dr. Stubbenhaust spent her entire adult life engaged in the complexities of space flight, the problem of which is that we can’t reach EFPs (Extremely Faraway Places) if we can’t go faster than the speed of light. Why not make light go faster, then? Stubbenhaust asked herself one day.
She worked out a few quick problems in her head using what she knew about space motion, travel speeds, and the ancient half-baked science of string theory, and came up with an idea of how to go about speeding up light. She reported her ideas to a few influential types that make things happen. They, in turn, wrangled her a bigger lab at Central U, a few extra post-grad students, and a year off from teaching. The result was a brand-new industry appealing to those with an addiction to speed and travel to the vac—vacuum. People like Tritcheon Hash.
Since Stubbenhaust’s first discovery of light acceleration, modification upon modification had been—based on the formula—heaped on the early prototype accelerators and the jets that they put them in. As is often the case with the discovery of heart-stopping phenomena such as light acceleration, nobody can get it right the first time, or even the second time, or the thirtieth. And no wonder. Theory-of-relativity speaking, changing the speed of light would be heart-stopping. Or rather, it would simulate the stopping of the heart—or would it? Of course that’s for all the Einsteinians to argue about over a cup of glop-and-mo at the local slimbone: Would your heart indeed appear to stop if you were traveling faster than the old light speed?
At any rate, testing of jets and accelerators and all the trinkets that go with them had been an ongoing affair since then. And now, a hundred years later, Tritcheon Hash had been hired by United Capstan to test the Stubbenhaust, which purportedly sported the ultimate light accelerator of the time. And today she’d sat in the pit of the dang thing for six butt-wrenching hours without catching so much as a yard of air. All the “ultimate in light acceleration” in the world was superfluous if she was stalled at the gate.
U.C.’s top research team had been developing the Stubbenhaust for two and a half years. The company was famous for its blowing of half a squark on a new “facility on the bay,” designed for something special. Then they started bench testing a hot new thing that only large developers of the heavily endowed get involved in. The coat geeks in the lab had insisted on total silence during phase-in, so nobody even knew it was in the pike. Then, last year, the geeks let the news slip and everybody got excited. The Stubbo carried a light accelerator that could fly the basket to Rye Galaxy in as little as a year. The nationals were jumping all over each other to invest in it just so they could be in on first-flight. They wanted their people on any new planets that the heavily metastasized decided to invade, inhabit, exploit, or otherwise just plain land on. They wanted to Be There.
So Tritch had drawn the lucky straw and sat strapped in as the flight tester de jour, and the coat-girls couldn’t even get the thing to start. And all she could think of now was that at the age of thirty-five, she’d already lived a lifetime. Somewhere within her entrails that bilious nagging voice had returned and was reminding her that she still had a lifetime of stop-and-go ahead of her. It wasn’t hard to recognize what she was going through. Some people call it midlife crisis. Others refer to it as the seven-year itch. It all boils down to the same thing: she was unsettled or (dare we say it?) bored.
She imagined Drannie waiting for her in the kitchen when she got home. Hopefully Drannie would have received a quick buzz from the schedulers for Tritch to take tomorrow off. If Drannie spoke to her at all, she’d just say, “There’s a message for you on the board.” There’d be no way to tell if D was happy or annoyed that Tritch would be getting a day off. D never gave up emotion anymore these days, as if the kids had drained all her feelings from her.
A twinge of something sad seeped into the reverie, but Tritch duly ignored it.
Of course, Tritch could call in from the jizzie now and intercept any transmission scheduled for the pod. Drannie wouldn’t even have to know if tomorrow turned out to be a clunker. Tritch could then just go to the sea for the day by herself like she wanted to. Wouldn’t be the first time she’d “cheated” on her wife that way. She felt a bit guilty, but then pushed that bullshit aside: a mule’s gotta do what a mule’s gotta do.
Tritch loved her wife; had always loved her since the first time they met at that party at Anschoss’ place eleven years before. Drannie had been (and still was) a knockout. Thin wrists to fight for. Red hair, half-cropped and slicked every day. Legs long and tight for flight. A perfect foil for Tritch’s stocky frame. In some other story, Drannie would have been a princess or a diva or the Queen of the World. She was a space calculator who had been working in Anschoss’ office—calculating the space. She calculated, that’s for sure. Tritch fell for her immediately. Feelings had been mutual as far as Tritch could tell. Drannie was looking for the big type. Not size but head. Someone without fear that could take care of her and of whom she could in turn take care. Drannie was ready to settle down, and she convinced Tritch that Tritch was too.
And it was all right. After having been through the planet’s theoretical battle training, undergoing the test program, working out in the field for a few years, Tritch felt like she’d probably lived alone long enough. She’d had lots of experiences and seen a lot of strange worlds and air space. Settling down was the next big thing for Tritch. And Drannie knew how to get her drunk.
Next thing Tritch knew, the two of them were picking out baby pictures after a couple of years of marriage. She couldn’t complain because, as a freelance pilot, she got to lift off almost every day and there isn’t much around more thrilling than that. Regardless of where she was in life, she had her Jones and could eat it too.
So, although one could say Tritch was cheating on Drannie, all right, she wasn’t cheating on her with another woman. Just another place. And if Drannie found out, she’d more than likely understand and probably be relieved that Tritch had opted to not hang around and get in the way all day.
Perhaps Tritch imagined it, but it seemed like Drannie was wrapped up in the kids more than anything—more than in Tritch. And, to be sure, Tritch did get in the way sometimes. On top of that, the girls were closer to Drannie. “Just a phase,” the parent psychol insisted. Said phase was scheduled to pass when the girls developed their own interests away from pod and podmaker. Still, Tritch had been feeling lonely lately.
Velenkyp showed up on the horizon screen as a mass of blinking message points for eateries and nail-ripping salons—the kind that are prevalent all over the universe in low-class towns of questionable mentality. Her own town, Shipup, overflowed with the middler classes. She’d see more day-care and Zencenter sign blips there. Fifteen gaps and she’d be home.
Her thoughts stayed on the old days, when nights were faster and Drannie loved her. She had been a hot kid in the program. Everybody knew it. And then there was that one special year that she had been selected for the cross-gender program, when she’d mingled with the inhabitants of “that other planet.” That unspeakable place of depravity and cruelty rife with filth and stench and decay, bad manners, bad breath, and bad planning. Where torture and brain sickness abounded.
The planet of men.
They’d sent over their cream for the gender-integrated battle training. What the purpose of the bizarre experiment was, nobody from either group knew, but Tritch couldn’t have cared less. She took advantage to experience what she could, even witnessing one of the individuals in a state of undress. It was complete with the famed penile apparatus that schoolgirls everywhere tittered about when first introduced to the subject in third section.
Once having viewed the apparatus, what had stopped her from engaging it? Sure it was highly illegal—but so was inserting haze inducers into your ears, and what teenager hadn’t done that for a good year of her life? And it is widely known in all the underground flipjoints that sexual intercourse with a male of the species is a much bigger shit-kicker than anything else—including detach on Jupiter. (Like anyone had ever done that!)
Moreover, Bangut, the young male with the apparatus, had seemed as if he’d be willing. He wasn’t even evil, as it turned out. The experience had falsified many things she had been taught since she was a nip of five.
But she hadn’t had the courage. She’d never stepped from her hiding-place in the safety of the shadows, curious and hungry as she was. She did not engage the penile apparatus.
And it had been bugging her ever since.
Shipup appeared on Tritch’s screen just as the jizzie flew past the foothills of the Gravel Mountains. These mountains occupied a favorable yet somewhat secluded spot on the women’s planet—Coney Island. Women have lived on the Island, without their “better half,” since the Twenty-second century, when they finally decided to give Earth the kiss-off. The moment of departure occurred after years of discussion, speechifying, protesting, whining, crying, begging, mollifying, and sweet-talking proved to be of no avail. The women gave up in disgust. Men just would not behave.
In fact, males had been getting more and more violent every year. Those that followed the VIYI (the Violent Incidents per Year Index, calculated by tallying brutal acts perpetrated against women by men, and tempered by such factors as economic climate, population density, and average atmospheric conditions) predicted that by year’s end in 2202, one in two women would find herself the victim of violent male aggression.
People scoffed at the prediction, but soon an incident involving one Helen Spires was on everyone’s lips. Ms. Spires’ ordeal was so intense in its sheer evil it proved to be the breaking point for women. Bound and gagged, Helen Spires was forced to listen to eight hours of Ted Nugent’s greatest hits in a room wallpapered with larger-than-life covers of the twentieth century rock star’s albums. Ms. Spires lasted a good seven hours, during which time she went slowly insane. Finally in her last hour, she swallowed her own tongue and choked to death.
After Ms. Spires’ suicide, everyone looked again to the predictions of the VIYI watchers and came to the same conclusion: coexistence was not going well for the female half.
One Thursday they decided to move.
They picked a planet light-years from Earth and named it Coney Island after the notorious women’s penal colony. A few people thought it was silly to name their new home after such a place, but the colony had grown legendary in the gals’ minds since so many of their poets and thinkers had come out of the place. They happily and quickly withdrew to the new and grand planet. “Quickly” being a period of ten years. Not too long a stretch of time when you think of moving 20 billion individuals to a new galaxy and a strange planet that had only a handful of humans previously inhabiting it.
Even with preparation commencing on Friday, the day after that day of decision in 2202, 20 billion folks is a lot of humanity to move at a speed faster than a rapid crawl. It took a month before the planning committee even left for a reconnaissance visit. It was a year before the first “pilgrims” landed. But after that a new fleet arrived every month. A thousand ships, each with 200,000 people, totaling 200 million women and children per shipment. Give or take a wad.
It was an exhilarating period, with building going on and businesses developing and possibilities for exploitation of weaker individuals running rampant, as is always the case when a baby civilization asserts itself in a newly accessible world. Those first ten years were wild and hairy, free and frightening, but by 2212 pretty much everybody had made it over and things began to settle down in the orderly fashion that women are so good at.
The question about whether or not they should develop artificial sperm (AS)—spiff it up a little, make it plausible—was raised immediately upon Separation. AS had been synthetically manufactured from turpentine and common earwax at zero gravity and very high temperatures centuries earlier. The main problem with AS was that it worked only in vitro. In the petri dish, as they say. Not the old way where you could inseminate in the lab, implant in mom, and Presto! “baby makes three.” Nope, the whole thing had to be worked up totally outside the human body. Baby gets born in a coffee can or some other convenient receptacle. Really, really appalling. Nevertheless, a very loud contingent—consisting of radicals that believed test-tube babies were all the rage—was for it.
But reports had circulated about those few individuals that were in fact test-tube babies. The difficulty they had bonding with their parents and their subsequent feelings of isolation upon entering adulthood resulted in the in vitro kids exhibiting abnormal behavior patterns just this side of autism. It didn’t take much to convince a population carrying communal maternal instincts that babies had to develop in the womb and be born as naturally as modern science would allow (which nowadays wasn’t very, as it was). In the end, they decided that nobody should be born in a can and therefore no AS could be used.
This might have presented a problem for our uprooted ladies on the new-found Coney Island, except that they’d taken a century’s worth of naturally derived sperm with them—enough to last through the ensuing “silent years” after Separation, the time when women simply didn’t speak to men.
Then one day, when the first babies that had been born in the new world were on the brink of teenhood, the women realized they had more than they could handle. It was the same sort of deep-seated emotion that any normal parent since the beginning of time has experienced when faced with teenagers. And, again, just like any normal parent since the beginning of time, they started to look around for a reason to kick the fledglings out of the nest. “Hey!” they thought, “What are we doing with males on our planet? Let’s at least get rid of the boy babies. They’re only going to grow up to be—ugh!—men anyway.”
So they came up with the idea for the baby exchange at a rendezvous point in the neutral South Galaxy where once a year a male representative would meet with a female representative. All the boy babies born on Coney Island during the previous year would be handed over to the men, and the women got a ton, or so, of fresh-frozen sperm in exchange.
And Coney Island thrived swimmingly, even as Earth fell into the wasteland it eventually became.
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