copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers

Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet

By Don Sakers

Part 8

The faces that surround her now are earnest, amused, anxious, impatient. Rita clears her throat. “All right. All I have to go on is what I’ve gathered from our news and such, and Goddess knows our media are biased. But the fact remains that you’re still spies.”

Girald steeples his fingers. “Such a harsh term. I prefer to think of us as ‘intelligence enhancers.’”

“What about ‘scouts?’” Tadj asks. “No, ‘reconnaisance operatives.’”

“How about ‘just plain nosy?’” someone else volunteers.

Jannet looks exasperated. “Here’s the truth. Some of the Nexus bigwigs are concerned about the human rights situation in North America. Since we’re all here for the Terran Council anyway, they asked us to find out what we could.” She spreads her hands. “That’s it. I suppose it would be fair enough to call that spying, if you want.”

Rita smiles. “Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against spying. To tell the truth, I find it rather exciting.” Rita catches herself glancing around, out of habit…but Daisy is turned off and the ballroom is blocked, so there is no one to hear, note, and report. “What are these human rights concerns?”

Jannet looks away, but Thea meets Rita’s gaze. “The Nexus is concerned about your government’s treatment of dissenters. We’re told that a certain number of criminals are transported each year to agricultural space settlements—but when we try to directly estimate the population of those settlements, the two numbers don’t match. Somewhere, thousands are going missing. Some of them show up as refugees here on Earth, and that’s a problem in its own right, but we want to know where the rest are going.”

Girald snorts. “Plus the fact that most of those ‘agricultural settlements’ are slave labor camps, with appalling living standards.”

“What do you think is happening to the missing people?”

“We don’t even know if there are any missing people. Maybe your government is over-reporting the number of transportees. That’s the factor we’re trying to figure out right now.”

Elaine Stockard closes her eyes and touches a finger to her right temple, gently stroking her cloth headband. “Last year, the United Nations of North America reported just under four million transportees. Then there were another three million who went into space ‘voluntarily.’” She opens her eyes. “Over the same time, they claim to have constructed one hundred twelve new populated habitats, which would be an average of fifty-three thousand settlers per habitat.”

“And I’ll bet,” Girald says, “The real figures aren’t half that.”

Elaine closes her eyes again. “The Nexus guesses that for the same period, they constructed seventy-five habitats, plus or minus eight. And the average per-habitat population is more on the close order of thirty thousand. Even allowing for migration to existing habitats, we can only account for four million, at the most.”

“How are you doing that?” Rita asks.

Elaine opens her eyes and smiles, touching her headband. “That’s right, you don’t have a databand. They’re frowned upon here, aren’t they?”

“We have Guardian Angels.” Rita indicates Daisy, careful not to activate the unit by touching it. “And the fellow at the door told me that this room is blocked.”

“Blocked to the North American datanet, not Terranet.”

“Oh, I see.” At a glance from Thea, Rita says, “I’d like to talk to you about your headband, later,” and shuts up.

Thea gives an approving nod. “Today, all of us were supposed to talk to as many North Americans as we could, exploring two general areas. First, how many people did your contact personally know, who had been Transported, or otherwise departed, in the last year? Second, family structure: how many children, siblings, living parents and grandparents, etc. Nexus agents all through North America were asked to submit the same type of information. Elaine, how did we do?”

“Our group submitted thirty-eight separate profiles, which was well above our target. On the whole, the sample from across the continent was deemed representative. Our AIs state that they have extremely high confidence in the results.”

“Which are?”

“Number one: at least four million people are believed to have been Transported, possibly as many as four-point-six million. An additional two to two-point-four million are known to have moved to existing offplanet habitats.”

Jannet whisles. “Six or seven million. And we can only account for four. Where did the others go?”

“What about the second part?” Thea asks.

“North America claims a population of about seven hundred million. According to projections from today’s data, there are really more like five hundred sixty million.”

The elfin-faced boy, Ray Schmidt, shakes his head. “That can’t be right. No government could mis-state their population that much. How could they get away with it?”

Rita speaks up, “Actually, there’s precedent. During the Cold War period, the Soviet Union consistently overstated their population and economic figures, sometimes by quite large margins. Western governments were certainly aware of the discrepancies—their intelligence services weren’t stupid. But they kept it quiet, even from their own citizens.”

Ray looks bewildered, and Rita notices that he is one of the few without a headband. “Why would a government do that?”

“Because nations do a lot of peculiar things,” Thea says. “Maybe to avoid publicly embarrassing the other nation. Maybe to make the other nation think they believe the propaganda. Maybe to keep their own citizens afraid of the other nation, so they’ll vote to increase the military and intelligence budgets. Ray, you know that nations are crazy.”

“That was in the last century. A deception on the scale you’re talking about, today? Surely the AIs would know.”

Girald leans forward, elbows on the table and fingers interlaced. “Ray, m’lad, you should know by now that the AIs don’t share our concepts of morality. They don’t know what makes people happy…they depend on us to set the parameters, then they help us meet them. If we tell them that having such-and-such an official population number makes us happy, even if the number is false, they’ll take our word for it and let that be the official number.” He cocks his head. “In reality, they know the population of every government on Earth, down to the last individual. All their economic projections must be based on accurate numbers. They’re just playing along with our game.”

Ray shakes his head. “I know AIs, and they’re not like that. The AIs I know are truthful and decent and kind.”

“And have you ever met an AI that works for the North American government?” Girald doesn’t wait for an answer. “You see?”

“Regardless of the AIs,” Jannet says, “We have reliable results. It’s established that North America’s figures are incorrect, and that two to three million North Americans disappeared last year. So far as we know, the Nexus can’t account for where they’ve gone.”

“But we know it has something to do with the repressive theocracy that these people have saddled themselves with,” Girald says.

“People were afraid,” Rita says. “People are afraid. You don’t know what it was like. I was there, at the Chesapeake Bay impact. I saw it. I just escaped in a ship that launched from Dulles at the last second.”

Elaine nods. “You’re that Rita Cuervo. You were interviewed all over the place.”

“How do you—oh, the headband. Of course.” Rita sighs. “At first nobody knew what was happening. They said that the impact was a natural event, but it was so exact, hitting that close to the capital. The whole country was traumatized. We’d lost so much. And President Dobson had a plan that gave us security.” She looks off into the distance, remembering. “There wasn’t enough to eat, so there was rationing, and the Guardian Angels started as a way to keep track of that. Then the impacts kept coming, the climate was so screwed up and there was never enough food….”

Jannet pats her hand. “Nobody’s pointing fingers, Rita. Every region had its own way of dealing with the impacts. North America took one path, Umoja took another. The Three Chinas keep sending their people to Mars. Europe’s birthrate dropped to nearly nothing, and they’ve hunkered down to wait out the impact cycle.” She purses her lips. “The Nexus is just concerned, that’s all.”

“So what now?” Tadj asks.

Jaison smiles. “Now nothing. You’ve done your jobs; it’s up to the Nexus to decide what action they’re going to take. Tonight, we can forget about it and party.” He stands, holds out a hand. “Who wants to dance?”

Elaine takes his hand. “Why, Mistah Hoister, Ah thought you would nevah ask.”

Tadj jumps up. “Count me in.”

Thea and Jannet exchange glances, then Thea says, “I guess Jaison’s right. There’s nothing else we can do until the bigwigs make their decisions.”

“In that case,” Jannet stands and offers her hand to Rita, “Let’s dance.”

The Junior Delegates dance with the same enthusiasm as they argue politics. Instead of breaking into discrete couples, they dance as a group, an ever-shifting constellation, a terpsichorean chaos that weaves in and among the other dancers on the floor. They change partners with abandon, like wayward planets appraching one another, sharing a few orbits around a common point, then slinging apart across the cosmos. To ever-shifting music and ever-altering rhythms, the dancers leap, twirl, dip, slide, climb furniture and dive off with athletic flips.

As she dances, Rita stays near Jannet, trying to match Jannet’s fluid movements without looking too spastic. Jannet, with a twinkle in her eye, laughs and raises the stakes, introducing a new spin or a sweep of the arms; Rita responds, meeting the challenge, and smiles herself. So their dance goes on, a subset of the larger swirl, a small private dialogue of motion within the greater public conversation of movement.

Finally, gasping and exhausted, Rita grabs Jannet’s hand and pulls her out of the grand reeling mass. “Wait, wait, I have to rest,” she pants.

Jannet, breathing heavily herself, nods and gestures to nearby chairs. They settle, hands still clasped, and watch. The music shifts again, and the dancers coalesce into a giddy whirlpool, circling round and round the floor like water around a drain. One woman in a powered scooter weaves in and out of the dancers, turning so tightly that she seems to teeter on two wheels….

Jannet leans close, and Rita, reading her face, answers the motion so that their lips meet briefly separate, then meet again.

And from within, Rita comes to the realization that, for the first time in a long, long while, she is content.


Later, after another turn on the dance floor, Rita and Jannet return to the table; a moment later, Ray Schmidt and Elaine Stockard stumble over and collapse into chairs. Huffing, Elaine says, “Who wants to go back to the room and rest a bit?”

Ray instantly holds up a hand. “Count me in.”

Jannet looks around. “It’s not even midnight yet.”

“We can come back. I just want to take a break.” Elaine looks in Rita’s direction. “Besides, Rita wanted to talk about databands.”

Jannet glances at Rita, raises an eyebrow. “What do you want to do?”

Rita catches her breath. “I would love a chance to take a break. I’m used to keeping up with nine-year-olds; this bunch is a lot worse.”

Jannet laughs. “Let’s go, then.”

The hotel room is actually a suite, several sleeping rooms connecting to a large central sitting room with couches, a dining table, and a tiny kitchen. After visiting the bathrooms, the four arrange themselves comfortably on couches.

Elaine takes off her shoes with a great sigh. “That feels much better.” She looks toward Rita. “So, you wanted to ask about our databands?”

“I’m curious,” Rita says. “I’ve read about them, but I’ve never seen one in person.”

Elaine takes off her headband hand hands it to Rita. “Take a look.”

The band is dark brown, a match to Elaine’s hair color, and made from a soft fabric with a silky feel. It is about three centimeters wide and a few millimeters thick. Running it through her fingers, Rita feels stiffer structures within, a complex network of filaments and flat rectangular shapes. She holds it up the light, but it is quite opague.

“It works by induction,” Elaine says. “It reads selected nerve impulses, and it can write directly to the visual cortex.”

Rita hands it back. “What’s it like, using it?”

“Almost exactly like wearing dataspex.”

“It can read your mind?”

Elaine chuckles. “No, not quite. You still have to speak commands. But you can sub-vocalize, without moving your lips. After a while, it starts to feel like it’s reading your thoughts.”

Rita shakes her head. “I can’t imagine it. It must be a lot more convenient than a Guardian Angel.”

Ray leans forward. “Would you like to try one?”

“I-I don’t know.”

He rises, goes to a bureau, and rummages through a drawer. “We always bring spares. They have a way of coming in handy. I have a few here.” He lays a pile of assorted databands on a coffee table before Rita. “Which one do you like?”

The objects range from fabric bands like Elaine’s to those that look more like conventional jewelry. Jannet reaches out and stirs the pile, then separates one from the rest. “How about this one? It doesn’t stand out quite so much. Looks easier to camouflage in the hair.”

The band is primarily an ordinary-looking hair comb of silver and turquoise. A loose web of dark filaments, a bit coarser than Rita’s own hair, extends outward from the comb.

Elaine nods. “I think it’s a good choice. If your government frowns on databands, you want one that won’t draw attention.”

Rita lifts the comb doubtfully. “How do I do this?”

“Let’s do this in a mirror. Come into the bathroom.”

Elaine pulls some of Rita’s hair together in the back and mounts the comb. “You wear your hair pretty short, so this shouldn’t be hard.” She brushes Rita’s hair back on the right, tucks filaments behind her ear, then smoothes the hair back into place. “The trick is to get good coverage of the temporal and frontal lobes. Look, you can run these over the crown and right down to your forehead.” The filaments gently adhere to Rita’s scalp. “There, when you brush your hair over them, you can barely see that you’re wearing the thing.”

Rita turns her head from side to side, examining her reflection. True, the filaments are almost invisible. “What do I do now?”

“Come sit down, and I’m going to turn you over to Ray. He’s more techie than I am.”

Ray sits next to Rita. He is now wearing a databand of his own, a narrow strip with the irridescent colors of zirconium or niobium. “I’m going to activate your band now. It’s best if you close your eyes.”

Rita does so. Afterimages dance briefly, then she sees only vague swirls of almost-color. She feels Ray’s hands move against her hair, then bright sparkles race across the bottom of her visual field. A second later, the sparkles are gone, replaced by clearly-formed, perfectly-legible letters: “Ready.”

She can’t help an exclamation of surprise. “It says ready.”

“Good,” Ray answers. “Give an order. Ask for the time.”

Keeping her eyes closed, Rita asks, “What time is it?”

Figures wink on, stay for a moment, then fade away. “That’s amazing.”

“You can open your eyes now.” She does. The first thing she sees is Ray’s face; instantly, floating letters superimposed on his forehead identify him as “Ray Schmidt, Nexus, Schmidt Foundation, age 22.” As she reads them, the words fade.

She looks around the room, noticing “Elaine Stockard, Nexus, Wal-Mart, age 21” and “Jannet Hoister, Nexus, Maris Institute, age 20.” “Very nice. It’s just like wearing dataspex.”

“I assume you’ll want all your data and settings transferred from your old unit?”

Rita raises her eyebrows. “You can do that?”

Ray nods. “I can do that without even turning your old unit on.” He brushes back her hair, traces the outline of Daisy on Rita’s neck. “This will take a few minutes.” He closes his eyes, and his face goes limp. Beneath their lids, his eyes jerk rapidly from side to side, up and down.

Bright speckles coruscate across her vision, then resolve into the word “Loading” and a progress bar that creeps slowly from left to right. She tells Ray what she sees.

“Good, the transfer is working.” Ray opens his eyes. “That bar will go away in a bit, then the system will report when let you know when the transfer is complete.”

“Am I going to be online again?” Surely, the church AIs will recognize that she’s wearing a databand. Suddenly, this doesn’t seem such a good idea.

“Only with Terranet. The databand doesn’t have the protocols to interface with your regional network.”

“So the church AIs won’t get my telemetry?”

“Not until you turn your own unit back on.” He grins. “If you ever do.” He removes his own databand.

“The others wear them all the time. Why don’t you?”

Ray looks at the irridescent strip in his hand. “Oh, this is just an external interface for programming your ’band.” He chuckles. “You wouldn’t know it, but I have Down Syndrome. They implanted all these little nanoprocessors in my brain. They’re linked to a control unit that I wear on my belt. With all of that, a databand would be redundant.”

“Wait, you’re telling me that your brain is directly connected to the net?”

“No, that’s a myth. The nanoprocessors keep my neurons on track when they misfire. The network interface reads my vocal impulses and writes to my optic nerves, just like a databand.”

Just now, the creeping progress bar reaches its end. Daisy’s familiar fairy-simulacrum appears and executes a smart bow, eyes a-twinkle. “The transfer is complete, Rita.”

Rita can’t help smiling. “It’s my usual interface.”

Ray nods. “All your preferences should be the same. And you should have all your data. Give it a test.”

“Okay. Daisy, what did I have for lunch last Tuesday?”

“Two hundred grams of yogurt, an apple, three hundred fifty milliliters of tomato juice, and a cup of coffee.”

Ray gives her an expectant look. “Well?”

“It gave the right answer. That’s amazing. You mean I can access any of my data, without having to put on Spex?”

“That’s right.”

“Private message from Jannet Hoister: ‘You really ought to give him a kiss.’”

Surprised, Rita looks at Jannet—who gives her a wink. So Rita puts her hand on Ray’s shoulder, leans forward for a quick peck on his cheek, and whispers, “Thank you.”

Ray, blushing, turns away. “It wasn’t any trouble, really.”

Jannet, crossing her arms, says, “Okay, are we rested enough? I want to dance some more.”

Elaine stretches and yawns. “You three go ahead. I’m just going to stretch out and relax.”

When they return to the ballroom, Rita is amazed at the difference. With her vision augmented by the databand, the dark room is alive with color and sensation. Everyone she meets, it seems, is wreathed in color and form. Thea Leonov wears a rainbow aura that pulses in time with the music. Tadj Ellenndan has become a sleek black-and-white striped tiger, his tail lashing back and forth as he scampers about the room. Even dour Girald Chen is into the game, his face and hands glowing sickly green and his eyes twin jade flames.

Now Rita is aware of another dimension to the dance. At the same time these young people swirl in their intricate movements around the floor, they also move in and out of several channels of silent conversation: sardonic comments, clever wordplay, extemporary poetry. Words and phrases hang in the air, following the images of their authors, twisting and twining and infinitely recombining in accompaniment to the music, the dance, the thoughts. And in the end, it all comes together in an impromptu mix of music and movement and language that leaves Rita dizzy and gasping for breath as she staggers to a nearby table and the stability of a chair.

After a time, Girald Chen sits down beside her. “I see that you have a databand.”

Rita nods. “A temporary one, at least. Ray set it up for me.”

“Temporary? Did he say you had to give it back?”

“Not in so many words. But I’m sure….”

“That doesn’t sound right. Hold on, I’ll ask him.” Girald looks in the direction of the dance floor. “Ray, young Rita here seems to think that her new databand is just a loaner. Was that your intention?”

A ghostly image of Ray’s face appears, superimposed over Rita’s field of vision. She hears his voice distinctly. “No. Rita, it’s yours to keep as long as you want.”

“I couldn’t. It’s too expensive.” She doesn’t actually have any idea how much a databand cost, but she knows that a good, adult-style Guardian Angel runs several hundred dollars.

“That’s silly. The Schmidt Foundation manufactures them. I always have a dozen or so spares to play around with. Truly. And if anyone cares, I’ll tell them that this was a promotional model. Complimentary from Grandfather’s company.”

Ray’s image vanishes, and Girald smiles. “There. the databand’s yours to keep. What do you think of it?”

“I’m still getting used to it. I feel like I’ve just opened my eyes, after having them closed for a long time. There’s a lot to adjust to.”

“I hear you. It must be something fo a shock, after living in such a closed society, to have your experiences expanded this way. My International Politics professor escaped from Chicago a few years ago; he has a series of articles on making the adjustment, and he talks a lot about how the databand changed things for him.” Girald psuases for a second, a distant look in his eyes. “Here, I’ll give you the netcodes so you can read them if you want.”

“Netcodes accepted and keyed for retrieval.”

“Thanks,” Rita says.

“Here, let me show you something.” Girald moves a little closer, definitely within her personal space. “You shouldn’t do this often, but a little bit can’t hurt. Here goes.”

In a flicker, things change. Rita can’t say exactly what is different, but the world seems a little clearer, her own mood a little lighter, Girald’s proximity a little less ominous.

“How do you feel?” Girald withdraws slightly.

“I…don’t know. How am I supposed to feel?”

“Stand up.”

Rita stands, and for a moment her head is light, the room seems to say ever so slightly. She takes a few steps, and smiles. “Okay, I feel a little high. What did you do?”

Girald stands up and steadies her with a hand on her elbow. “I told your databand to induce a slight overvoltage in your neurons. It’s like putting your brain into a tiny bit of overdrive. Most people experience heightened awareness and a mild euphoria.”

Rita nods. “That’s just about right. I’m happy. Not giddy or anything, but happy.” She locks her gaze on him. “You’re doing it now too, aren’t you?”

Girald chuckles and spreads his hands. “Guilty.”

“And I guess everybody else is doing it?”

“Most of them.”

“How often do you people do this?”

“Not often. It’s a lot healthier than coke or booze. And no hangover in the morning.” His grin slackens. “If you don’t like it, I can turn it off.”

Rita holds up a hand. “No. I’ve just discovered this, I want to find out what it’s like.”

“Okay.” His grin returns, broader than before. “Want to dance some more?”

Rita considers. She’s tired…but at the same time, she’s buzzing with new energy, and she wants to try moving some more. With a grin to match Girald’s, she takes his hand. “Sure.”

It doesn’t take long before the others realize what Girald has done. At first, Jannet and Ray are annoyed with him, but Rita protests. Finally, though, both of them admit that they, themselves, are similarly on overdrive, and that no harm is done.

Rita hasn’t let herself go for far too long; in the years since she started teaching, she hasn’t been drunk and has seldom allowed herself to get high. With her political and religious beliefs, and Guardian Angels always on the watch, she’s been reluctant to take chances.

Now, however, she feels a great sense of relief and release. Unafraid, she joins the others in uninhibited joy.

And so the night goes on, until at last Rita finds herself back in the hotel suite, snuggling and laughing on an enormous couch with Jannet, Ray, Girald, and Elaine. Across the room, another group plays at an obscure holovideo game. Tadj Ellenndan moves back and forth between the groups, refusing to settle.

Jannet hugs Rita tightly. “I’m glad you came here tonight.”

Ray squeezes her hand. “Me too.”

She smiles, then starts. “What time is it?” The answer comes instantly: it is nearly two in the morning. “Oh, Isis!” She struggles to separate herself from the others, to stand. “I have to go.”

Jannet’s gentle half-embrace keeps Rita on the couch. “What’s wrong, Rita? I thought you were having fun here.”

“I am. It’s just that I have to be at school at seven.”

Girald snorts. “Hon, you’d better call in sick.”

Ray says, “Can you?”

Rita considers. She can’t remember the last time she took a sick day. “I guess so….”

Jannet gives her a tender look. “We were hoping you could come to the Council meeting tomorrow.” She grins. “It’ll certainly be an education.”

“You do know how to tempt a girl.” And a powerful temptation it is. For a brief time in her life, Rita came close to her dream of being involved in politics. Then, with poor Carrie Ramierez’s fall, it was all snatched away. To revisit that world, even just for a day, would be wonderful.

She makes her decision. “All right. Give me a few seconds.” She sits up. “Daisy, notify the school that I am taking sick leave tomorrow.”

“Confirm request for sick leave on Thursday, August 30.”

“No. Make that today.”

“Confirm request for sick leave on Wednesday, August 29.”


Just a moment later, Daisy announces, “The school has set your status to sick leave for Wednesday, August 29.” Rescheduling for a sick day is a trivial problem to the school’s personnel computer. Rita’s lesson plans and class notes are all on file, available to the teachers who cover for her; her class will not suffer from her absence.

Rita turns to Jannet. “Okay, I can stay.”

“Good. Now get back here.”

Some indeterminate time later, the gaming group breaks up and Tadj starts whining, “It’s time for bed. I’m slee-eepy.”

As everyone gathers themselves for bedtime, Jannet draws Rita slightly aside. “We usually togther. One of the bedrooms is decked out with air mattresses.” Then, half as a question, ”We can make other arrangements, if you want.”

Rita shakes her head. “No, actually, that sounds fine. I’m used to that sort ao arrangment. Covens do something similar for Beltane and Samhain.”

“Okay. As long as you don’t mind.”

Ray approaches her as she’s waiting to use one of the bathrooms. “Here, let me turn off your overvoltage.” All at once, Rita feels much more tired…but still happy. “When you’re ready to sleep, use the command ‘execute narco-induction.’ Your headband will induce delta waves. You’ll get deep, natural sleep and wake up refreshed.”

“Thanks. When is the meeting tomorrow?”

“Noon. But everbody won’t be there until thirteen, thriteen-thirty. The formal session won’t start until fourteen, at least.”

Rita smiles. “Great hours.”

Ray laughs. “This is vacation time for the Council. When things are hot and heavy, sometimes they continue sessions around the clock. In the regular Council hall in Geneva, there are permanent cots for each delegation.”

Rita tries to reply, but a great yawn stops her, and then the bathroom is free.

Much later, feeling loved and satisfied in a way that the greatest Beltane feast has never matched, Rita whispers into the dark, “Daisy, execute narco-induction.” And at once, sleep closes over her like a warm, comforting blanket.

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