Flight

Quite in spite of her professed lack of interest in such things, Khloe had lingered overlong at all the various historic sites around Castine.  That left Bach having to push his way through the surprisingly thick crowds gathering ‘round the town’s waterfront parking lot.

All jostling and cursing aside, he brought his companion through the tangles of sharp human elbows, no few of which he caught square in the ribs.  He offered a ‘sorry’ here, and received an ‘oops’ there on his way to eventually finding himself challenged by an officer at the forefront of the milling crowd.

“Ah, Bach!  Yeah, go ahead,” the officer waved.  Looked vaguely familar, the young officer did.  Perhaps he was an old schoolmate.  He seemed to know Bach on sight, anyways.  Letting this curiosity pass out of mind, he lifted an old wooden blockade aside long enough for Khloe to pass before replacing it again.

From the looks of the lot, everything had gone as smoothly as one could reasonably expect, under the circumstances.  “Not sure I’ve ever seen this spot so empty of cars!”

“Huh?”  Khloe gave him a brief and confused glance.

“Nothing, really.   Just this lot’s always so packed full of cars, people sometimes fight over a free spot.”

“Oh.”  She mostly likely did not care.

All the terrestrial land-walking husks sat in mindless relaxation in various corners of the lot.  His ape-shaped husk and one feline-like model occupied opposing corners, and the one that looked, for all the world, like some strange insect the length of a stretch limo, curled up on itself at the very center.

Khloe walked up beside him as he stopped to take everything in, so he pointed her attention to a third corner.  “Avian husks over there.  Flyers, I mean.  Those must have been out when you found me in the warehouse earlier.”  Though each of the mechanical beasts situated about the lot had attendees, the flying sort had a particularly thick crowd of admirers.

Khloe asked, “will they fly today?”  

“Absolutely.”

She nodded for a moment, satisfied with his answer, and then pointed off toward the ground surrounding the smaller of the two avian husks.  “I see Sir Abraham.”

“And my dad,” Bach included.  “Gotta check in, anyhow, so let's head over.”

After their approach, the young woman plucked at Ol’ Sandy’s loosened grey formal dress coat.  This brought her the attention of both the old coot and Bach’s father both, their having till then been involved in conversation.  As the other two struck up a conversation, the older Kavanagh — who, in spite of being probably a year or so older than his old college bud, had yet to show any grey — turned on his heels to face Bach directly, steel grey eyes unreadable.  “I see you’ve returned to us.”

That doesn’t sound good.  “Had to show Lady Khloe ‘round town,” Bach returned with a shrug.  Though he didn’t really have to, he wouldn’t go and lay the blame on her.  That was not his way.  ‘Had to’ will have to do.

At the mention of her name, Khloe’s attention returned.  “Yes?”  Bached guessed she hadn’t overheard the context, just her name spoken aloud.

“My boy says he had to show you around town?”  Ol’ Dean had crossed his arms and stiffened his shoulders, preparing to be stern with Bach’s all too recent companion, but — and this caught Bach completely off guard — the old man actually gave the young woman a double-take, and nearly choked on whatever it was he meant next to say.  “Oh, I see.”  

What the hell was that supposed to mean?  Whatever.  It was nothing worth bristling over.  Still, Bach preferred to keep private things… private.  And nothing had happened anyways.  

Ol’ Dean recovered himself.  “In any case, Bach, make yourself ready.  I’ve got Elvis and Bethy who will do some piloting, but that means you’ll have to handle two, yourself.  The ape, of course,” and then his dad paused in thought.  Then he pointed to the larger of the two flying models resting on the pavement before them.  “And that one… it’s more expensive, so I’d like to take the least chance with it.”

“Sure.”  Needn’t say more than that.  Bach really need only find a comfortable spot to wedge himself into for the duration.  Wetware networked telepresence — rather, the act of controlling a remote device from a distance — didn’t require any kind of special suit or seat or anything.  The act simply begged freedom for the pilot to focus on the senses of the machine in question.  What with his wetware only adding extra information to sensory nerves, Bach could technically operate any of the husks without closing his living eyelids.  Still, there came a certain confusion, Bach knew, that came from seeing two perspectives both at once.  It’s always easier to snap shut one set of eyes before opening the next, albeit somewhere else.

Bach scanned the periphery of the lot for somewhere comfortable to set himself up — perhaps even for as much as two hours, depending on how things went.  Somewhere preferably away from the throngs, if that could be helped at all.  Somewhere out of direct summer's sunlight.  All in all, options turned out to be limited.  Maybe the old car’s still in the warehouse.

Bounding off, Bach left Ol’ Sandy introducing the Lady Khloe Kalitzakis to his father.  Guess they haven’t met yet, either.

Though the warehouse did not directly abut the public parking lot, only a slightly smaller private lot, a seasonal seafood and burger stand, and an old and battered aluminum fence separated the two from one another.  This just wasn’t the sort of town where folk worried about things like security.  Not even with the seasonal torrents of out-of-staters come to visit as they always do.

Bach entered the warehouse through what he’d always imagined to be large sliding hangar-bay doors, left open since early morning.  “Ah ha, there it is.”  He’d thought as much.  In the nearest corner sat a rounded pile of dusty green tarp.  Bach pulled it off, revealing a scratched up old three-wheel car, a pure electric relic from the days when they still were rare on the roads.  Blasted old thing could only seat one and a half people comfortably unless, of course, the second person who took the rear seat, stood a hell of a lot shorter than Bach.

He’d set it aside a few years back, planning to tear off all the old carbon fiber panels, and either replace them with some kind of biocaste or maybe even more carbon fiber, perhaps with some bright color like orange or yellow.  Out of sight and out of mind, Bach admitted to himself.  

Pulling a door wide and sliding the glassy roof back, he slipped in and found the key already embedded in the ignition.  Newer cars these days didn’t even have keys so, likely, no one would even have thought to look for any.  Of course, if he’d not left them here, they’d long be lost by now. 

The dashboard, small as it was, sprang colorfully to life at the turn of the key.  Bach inched the car forward.  Not even low on capacitor charge, after all this time.  After some cutting back and forth, he had it out through those hangar doors and into the sun where it could put another kilowatt-hour or two back into its capacitors.  

Though he could have tuned in and linked up with any of the husks from right there in the warehouse, the air inside nigh on smoldered, what with the complete lack of a breeze.  And the car itself could use a bit of an airing out.  He pulled it ‘round the corner, and alongside the street before yanking loose and pocketing the key.

Bach stretched and settled, having set the single front seat to recline.  “Best not waste time further,” he chided himself.  With his typical reluctance, he opened his mind to the wireless, and let it wash over him.  From where he lay looking up at the sky through the car’s open canopy, little of the real world had changed.  Just some inn’s figment of a sign that gradually appeared where it had not been before, towering above him high enough to be visible to potential visitors still a good mile or two outside of town.  These were exactly the sort of boisterously ethereal spectacles Bach preferred to do without.  In any case, he had to be tuned in if he were to merge with the husks he’d soon be piloting.

He let his eyelids slide shut and then, in his mind, let another pair pop open.  Not that the husk itself had actual eyelids, no.  This was just a matter of mental analogy, really.  The act of going from reclining in a car to looking up at a throng of human beings chattering to themselves is what folk referred to these days as ‘telepresence.’

He saw his dad, Khloe, Ol’ Sandy, and others he did not recognize.  A glance to his left showed Bach the smaller avian husk, built more like a bat for aerial acrobatics.  If he felt short seeing the world from the perspective of this larger flying machine, he balked at imagining himself being only half as tall.  

Bach turned his attention to his newfound wings.  This flying husk hadn’t the shape of modern birds but, if anything, more closely mimicked the design of prehistoric pterodactyls.  The ability to bear some of its weight on its forelimbs, while folding away the wings had been the reasoning behind the design there.  Of course, after the fact, some adjustments had to be made, as it turned out that the pterodactyl form wasn’t altogether that great a flier.  A compromise in design had worked out, however.

Sudden motion above him brought Bach’s attention toward the human giants that stood all around.  One, a well-proportioned giant of a woman who seemed shorter than most of the rest of the crowd, crouched down, hugging her knees as she kept herself balanced on the toes of her well-abused sandals.  That she’d been careful to fold her skirts while crouching down demonstrated perhaps she knew a little something about the fact that since this husk had become animate, it meant there was a human being sharing its senses.  The testing and flexing of his neck and wings had, more than likely, attracted her attention.

Perhaps there was something about the anonymity in meeting people by proxy that allowed some to be more forward than they might otherwise be in person.  In this case, her smile and bizarrely amber eyes were all the reason he had for staring up at her face as he did.  She’d brought it about as close as she could without putting her knees down on the hot biocrete pavement.  

Either she was awfully tan, or had some Latino ancestry in her.  She was not quite pale of skin and her hair sported a rich chocolate color where the sun hadn’t brought forth cinnamon highlights.  Still, those eyes — everything about them smiled at him or, more accurately, at the now ambulatory husk he wore.

Such a rare shade were her eyes, that they very nearly kept Bach from noticing the figments she decorated herself with.  About an inch above her eyebrows there hovered a flawless but lazy emerald that might even be glowing from within.  Giving it a good long look, he still wasn’t quite sure, it was that subtle.  

Beyond this ethereal bit of jewelry, she also broadcasted — across the net for others to perceive, that is — the tapering of two symmetrically mirrored tattoos.  Sinuous and slim, roping back and forth and folding in upon themselves, these started just above and to either side of the levitating gemstone, there to curl up under her cinnamon bangs.  After that, they curved around her temples and dove behind her ears.  At least, this was true for the one ear he could see that hadn’t hair falling over it.  

Down the sides of her neck these chromatic lines continued, to disappear under the mandarin collar of her textured charcoal suit-blouse.  Bach could only wonder where those tattoos went from there, and immediately fought off the temptation to imagine.

He had absolutely no idea who this person was, and yet… do I, though?  Bach couldn’t figure how he could, and yet, an undercurrent of familiarity pulled at his mind.

Just then, her lips moved and Bach heard nothing.  His instinct to shake the husk’s head back and forth didn’t help.  Perhaps the auditory microphones had been left disconnected.  All concern for his deafness fled when the woman reached out a hand — a hand that grew impossibly large as it drew close to the husk’s small face.  At close range, this thing has a bit of a distortion in perspective, he thought to himself.  Not that it was important, but Bach made a mental note of it even so.  Perhaps that was something they could improve on with a different selection of camera lenses.  

The woman drew back her hand in moment of seeming indecision, but then shot it out once again and, to Bach’s surprise, patted him on the head.  Maybe it’s just something about animals that make people feel welcome with their touch.  Not that this husk was an animal, not really.  It was built like one and had internal functions like one.  It even had artificial cartilage and thin and light metallic bones encased in substances halfway in consistency between that of a gel and of a solid, not too much unlike muscle.  Much of the rest of the artificial beast came wrapped in a thick, damage resistant, and resealing polymer ‘skin.’  

More words silently breached those thin lips of hers.  But, still, Bach could not hear them.  Reclaiming his wits from this giant of feminine distraction, Bach summoned into being a hovering interface.  The woman pulled her hand back and took to hugging her knees again, but did not withdraw any further than that.  She must see the figment interface, must be tuned into the web just as he was.  While there’d been no real reason to broadcast the husk’s menu system, there hadn’t really been a reason not to, either.  Now that she looked on with interest, Bach found himself loath to deny her the opportunity to observe.

Plucking at the menu proved more than a little tricky at first.  Humans didn’t have to fold back wings that jutted out from their hands along two impossibly long wing-fingers.  Still, this husk did, and at first those wing-fingers kept wanting to stretch out when he went to point with the normal-sized pair.  The giant woman above him broke into a smile that she quickly tried to disguise behind a raised hand, perhaps in trying not to distract him.  

That’s just as well as Bach had to poke and pull at quite a few menu options — each giving him a false but mentally crucial tactile sensation as feedback — before finding options for diagnosis.  From what he could tell, according to the figment interface, the husk’s ‘ears’ had not been intentionally turned off.  Must be busted!  His dad would love to hear that but, if Bach had anything to say about it, much, much later.

Casting away the ethereal menus with a gesture of his tiny claws, Bach shrugged up at the woman with his strange and tiny shoulders.  “Can’t hear you,” he said.  “My ears seem to be cut for the moment.”

The woman’s nod and smile came as confirmation, at least, that the husk’s synthesizer still worked, at least.  She then reached out to pat him on the head again, leaving Bach with conflicting sensations.  Standing, she tapped another woman on the shoulder.  Actually, the other one looked a fair bit like her.  A relative?  A sister, maybe?  

The first woman motioned towards Bach’s husk, and the second followed the gesture with her gaze.  Bach craned his neck around to look at her.  Not that he couldn’t see her before, but the motion would let this second woman understand what her companion’s fuss was all about.  She laughed visibly, if not audibly, and a third girl’s head popped into view just over the second’s shoulder.  This one had a fair bit of Asian in the features of her face and color of her hair.  They both wore varying but not obnoxious figments, as well.

Before long, the whole throng of human giants had their attentions upon the now animated husk, on Bach.  Dad and Ol’ Sandy with Lady Kalitzakis hovering close along this woman before him and what must be her sister, or cousin perhaps.  The young Asian woman and two men in military dress uniforms — each stuck somewhere between not quite young anymore and not yet middle aged — wandered close as well.  Elvis Washburn, a young dark-skinned man who worked with him and his Dad at the warehouse, appeared behind the crowd for a moment.  That is, ‘til Dean, his father, waved the poor boy off, likely with a verbal prod for not yet being ready to pilot his own pair of husks.  

As if by confirmation, Bach heard his father’s raised voice from where he sat in the old car, if muffled by the delay of sound moving some distance through thick summer air.

The old man turned his attentions back upon Bach, and spoke with significantly less volume.  Even in delay, Bach would not have caught what he’d said, not from this distance.  The tan woman stood and turned to address his father, likely relating the fact that the husk couldn’t hear anything at the moment.  

After the way his dad pulled at his stubble on his chin and shook his head, he knew for certain.  So much for telling him later.  In any case, Ol’ Dean chose instead to make his instructions visible.  With a wave of the hand, figment letters appeared in the air.  ‘Take ‘er up,’ they read.  As they vanished, his dad panned out another message, ‘Ten minutes.’  Again, the words faded away quickly after he’d summoned them into being. 

“Well enough,” Bach chirped out through the husk’s synthesizer.  Ol’ Dean nodded, and Bach skittered a bit away from the crowd while seeking, for his avian body, enough room to vie for some altitude.  Suffice it to say, the physical act of flying — as opposed to that of riding something that flew — didn’t quite come so naturally to the mind of a beast, such as his human self, that had no wings.

Whatever spectacle of flapping he made of himself in taking off, Bach stiffly ignored.  It wasn’t as if there was any other way he could manage going about it.  The pounding of these polymer wings had him bobbing up and down in the air for a moment.  But once Bach was sure that his husk’s feet were off the ground, he put a little angle to the beating of those wings, and began to pitch forward.  In a few moments, he had real momentum, and then, just like that, the sheer edge of the pier dropped away beneath him, to be replaced by dark bay waters.

Though he could feel the wind curling a little faster over the tops of his wings and back — though he could feel a pressure pushing on him from below — on a rational level, he knew he did not actually feel these things.  These sensations came as extra information deposited onto his senses by his own personal posse of wetware, those microscopic machines designed for use inside the body.  Still, these sensations had true importance, giving him the clues he’d need to operate the husk as if he were, himself, a flying animal.  Even being able to feel his way through the air, this would start out as awkward at the very best.

Having gained a fair amount of speed, Bach dipped a wing into a wide turn through the air out over the bay waters.  A quick glance below showed him perhaps a good fifty feet.  That should be fine for those observing.  If there were money in it, Bach could do this sort of thing pretty much all day, every day.  Why hadn’t mankind been bred to the wing?  It was too bad, really.

Crossing the distance back to the pier side,  back to the parking lot, he watched as the privileged few and the resting husks they examined slipped away beneath him.  Pivoting sharply over the crowd that had gathered beyond the makeshift police barricades, Bach heard a cheer rise up even from where he sat, reclining in his car — the very same car that his flying self then passed right over.  It felt odd to see himself from this angle.

In that moment, ten minutes felt like plenty of time.  Bach left himself and his car behind, and drifted toward his left, meaning to follow the shoreline past private residences and the old fort, now little more than a bump in the soil.  Then, rounding northward and following along with the ever more forested waterfront, Bach skimmed out over the water just offshore.  

“Best not lose it here,” he muttered to himself back in the car, pulling himself higher, and then higher again.  The pines and oaks fell away even as the inns and private estates widened the girth of their properties, forcing more and more space between each other the further up the west side of the peninsula they sat.  The north and westward tip of the peninsula still had no one living there at all, having been protected from development.  

Bach dipped again, banking this time to his right as he followed the boundary between land and sea that defined the outline of this small outcrop of land known as the town of Castine.

Though the sun neared the horizon, summer’s heat persisted, and the husk transmitted to him all the sensation it had of the warm air rising from below as he took to crossing over land.  Bach let himself rise on that thermal, and followed in the paths he’d seen other large birds take, spiraling ‘round and ‘round, up and up.  

With his mind convinced of false motion as the husk he occupied whipped and dove and tilted and soared, Bach’s stomach fought with him in that queasy way one felt while falling.  He couldn’t even guess at how high he was, how high his avian husk had climbed through the air.

He turned once more, and brought the southern slope of the peninsula back into sight.  That was where the town lay, where the demonstration must soon unfold.  Though his father was no more extroverted than he himself tended to be, the man still ran the company.  Bach had no qualms letting his old man do all the talking.  “I’ll do the flying,” he almost laughed to himself in reply to his own inner dialogue.  

“Welcome, everyone, to Castine!”  It would not have been accurate to say that his father’s voice echoed across to him where he sat because, in actuality, the voice he heard had not been real at all.  Folk heard his father’s voice as clear as if he stood beside them, thanks to its broadcast over the wireless.  There’d be no need for bullhorns when anyone who wanted to hear could simply tune themselves in to the net. “My name is Dean Kavanagh,” the voice continued, “and as most of the attending natives well know, I’m not one for words.” 

“The hell you say,” Bach let slip, if only to himself, safe within the confines of his old parked car, well away from the masses and his father’s ear.  

Ol’ Dean continued, “Even so, there’s a lot to talk about today, with this summer’s American Telepresence demonstration!”  Being the quiet sort himself, Bach had to give his old man some kudos for pushing through the discomfort of being on public display.  At the very least, he thought, neither of us will long be the center of attention.

Bach could see the parking lot now — maybe a quarter mile off — which meant Ol’ Dean could almost certainly see him, too.  He hoped he was looking, not that it really mattered all that much.  Still, things would go off a tad more smoothly if his dad could time whatever it was he had to say with Bach’s imminent fly-over.

“We’ve been doing this for a few years now… ever since Ay-Tee has been able to boast a respectable inventory of models to offer.  Each year, we try to improve upon our work.  We even set aside some time for tangential ideas that may, or… possibly, may not lead to industry leading innovations.  We may not be the largest husk-maker on the face of this old Earth, but we’re certainly competitive even with the best.”

Bach could hear what sounded like applause, muffled somewhat by distance and still-hot summer evening air.  This was a business, after all.  He and his father had to sell these things, when the day was done.  Perhaps not prototypes like these, not usually.   But if few or even no orders came in for one, the model series may never produce more than a rare few.  Those few, though, often ended up purchased as collectibles by the curious eccentrics of the world who have more money than they know what the hell to do with.

“This year will be no different,” his dad furthered. “We have seven new models, two of which represent wholly new design lines and theory.”  Bach slipped through the air while listening to his father’s voice, and decided to bank sharply upwards to make himself more obvious at this distance.  The stunt worked.  “And one of them is headed back this way even as I speak.” 

From above, Bach could make out his father.  The quasi-pterodactyl husk he occupied had been given vision in excess of human norms, allowing him to clearly make the other man out, even at this distance.  Ol' Dean swung an arm wide through the air, toward him, and many a head turned as myriad eyes raised up to greet his approach.  

Judging distance really isn’t that difficult, in spite of this husk’s unusual acuity of vision.  Without summoning up oft available figment visual aides, Bach could literally feel just when to begin another dip and another turn.  He swooped in low, and pulled a tight bank within the air over the parking lot.  There rose a thermal here, too — likely cast off by the summer baked asphalt or the biocrete that had long since replaced it in most spots.

Bach looked down upon a crowd.  He saw them uttering what likely were ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as he passed them over.  Only the occasional shrill whistle of approval reached his ears as far away as his refuge in the car, though.  Again, he took to a well-contained upward spiral, borne up by the rising warm air.

Ol’ Dean continued his sales pitch.  “For those interested, this is prototype A33… an avian… a flying model that takes unto itself inspirations from both modern birds and the ancient and extinct pterodactyl.  As large as it is, the focus here is on long term flight… on the ability to stay aloft almost indefinitely.  We give up the bat-like maneuverability that our one current line of avians offer but, in turn, give it greater range as well as altitude.  It does, however, retain the ability to manipulate objects with both its hands and its feet.”  

That last bit from his father gave Bach a bit of inspiration.  Tilting and diving, he aligned himself with his old man and swooped.  Ol’ Dean gave a bit of a start, but did not give up any ground seven though this avian husk had been built bigger and heavier than most birds of prey.  Once within just yards of the elder Kavanagh, Bach whipped his wings upward, parachuting for a bit of a slowdown, and then dropped perfectly to the pavement.  Dean looked down at him, with the look of a question written across his face.  “As you can see,” he recovered, “in the right hands, even with the trade-off in speed versus agility, this model still remains among the most nimble of any class of competing avians available on the market today.”

Nice save, old man.  With that Bach sprang from the pavement, reached out with one of the thing’s tiny two-fingered claws halfway along the length of its wing, and caught Ol’ Dean’s ancient baseball cap right off his head.  Bach fell to the pavement, rolled, and then charged past the same group that had looked down upon him when he’d first brought this thing to life.  That same woman with the figment emerald and those strange amber eyes laughed with bodily vigor, though Bach could hear nothing of it.  With momentum now on his side, Bach leapt for the air, caught it, and swung into an immediate rising coil over the parking lot.  

That same rumble of applause crossed the distance from the crowd to his living ears.  Whatever his father might think of the stunt — whatever he might say of it to Bach’s face, come privacy of their home later that night — a certainty welled within him.  He’d probably just given this prototype the lifeline it needed to see full production.  With another pass, he let the old hat drop from his grip as he let the moment, and the thermal, carry him higher and higher.  If they wanted to see altitude, he’d show them altitude.

Banking again to look down, something strange caught Bach’s eye.  As his wheeling through the air once again brought him out over the water, he tilted the other way for a better view.  “The hell?“ he meant to ask himself, trailing off instead.  

He’d never seen anything like this.  As he watched, the black bay waters drained away at an alarming rate, exposing seaweeds and silts and rocks that never saw the direct light of day.  Glances both to east and west showed him private boats being dragged out to sea, or otherwise caught upon the exposed rock and mud.  “What’s going on here?”