Friday, September 27, 2013

Cloud Dancer

Pippa's easels were held together more with tape and hope than solid welds or professional care. The yellow warning light on number two disappointed, but didn't surprise her. The directional fans stuck. The 250-liter water tank had a bright orange rust stain from a slow leak. One docking cradle was missing its sculpting drone. This, even after she had drained her account for the parts to get both units flying again. At least they had passed the safety inspection, she thought as she called up number two's control display on her tablet.

The port fan's heating circuit said the air temperature was seventeen degrees Centigrade below zero, when it should have read about ten above. Pippa frowned, and smacked her hand against the housing. The temperature didn't change. She keyed the controls on her tablet and pulsed the heater. The feedback tracked up with the pulse, so maybe it was only out of calibration. She'd have to check into it later, there wasn't enough time to fix it here. When she won today, she promised herself, she would pay someone to fix it for her. If not, well, she'd think of something.

“Problems, Senhora?” a voice said. Pippa turned and saw Carlos Maya, looking over her shoulder at the tablet.

“Flaky heater circuit in one of my easels.”

“Bad luck for you, Senhora. You pulling out?”

"Did you ask your brother the same thing before coming over to bother me?"

"Julio? Nah, he never talks to me before a contest. I was just hoping I could get your fluff if you quit." He jerked his head towards his clouds. "I'll have to use half the water limit just to pull things together today."

"And you can't stand to see your little brother beat you," she said.

Carlos grinned. "Maybe. So can I have your fluff or not?"

“The easel should be okay,” she said and nodded at the judge's stand so Carlos would stop eyeing the easel. “Look, Mansel Reefik is judging today. I heard he's a fan of the Winters school.”

Carlos shrugged. “Perhaps. I wouldn't worry about it.”

“This could boost my career, Carlos. I just need to think up something to impress him.”

Carlos shook his head with a sad smile. “So serious. You need to have more fun. Make it your own, Senhora, and the Mansel Reefiks and Winters won't matter.”

“Says the man who has more gigs than he can take.”

Carlos opened his mouth when a loudspeaker came to life, and a woman's enthusiastic voice welcomed the crowd. Carlos nodded his goodbye and ran to join his brother. Pippa scanned the sky again; the voice over the speaker could be ignored for the next few minutes. Several ideas came to her, discarded one by one as she calculated how much heat, water, and time each would need.

Then she had it, a seascape. The ocean below reflected in the clouds. It had the duality the artists of Winters school emphasized, and hopefully she could make it look like she wasn't completely aping them. The stylus in her hand danced over her tablet as she stared at the fluff. She looked down after a few minutes and studied the contours she had drawn, and began editing her easels' instructions. She was so focused on the wind drift corrections that she almost missed her introduction.

“In her professional debut, please welcome Pippa Dianalar,” the PA speaker said.

She turned and blinked against a spotlight's glare. She waved in the direction of the scattered applause. The voice went on to introduce her competition. Whistles and shouts greeted each of the Maya brothers. The last artist, Becka, received the most applause. She had been sculpting for years, and had an uncanny talent for layering vapor density to produce half-tones that put the best modeling programs to shame.

Pippa held her tablet at arm's length, looking for mistakes, and making sure her own suit's flight path wouldn't collide with the easels or drones. She didn't have Becka's gift of layering, or a reputation that impressed judges. Neither did she have the Maya's knack for tapping into the crowd's imagination, or their rabid fans. She did have the best fluff today. If she could execute her idea, it would all work out. She erased a tunneling cut that didn't look quite right. She would just have to be perfect today, that's all.

The PA'd voice brought her out of her thoughts. “Sculptors, ready your easels...launch!”

Pippa swore and downloaded her changes.

The easels' rotors screamed as they bit into the morning air, making a keening that faded as they gained altitude. Pippa secured her stylus and tablet to her thigh, and fired her suit's jets. Her flesh felt heavy as she rose, focusing her mind on the fluff. The easels lumbered into position, and released their drones which scattered like children on the last day of school. The air shimmered around the easels as their heaters kicked in and began sending out streams of vapor for the gross changes. The drones started herding away stray wisps and building vapor densities for detailing later.

She set her suit to auto and arced towards the fluff that would become her ocean wave. She kicked out her legs and began swiveling hip over hip. Those years of dance classes her parents had forced on her had actually come in handy. Where others used a third easel for the fine sculpting, she used her suit's jets. It was a novelty when she first used it in her work, but was now part of her style.

She danced as the suit followed its flight path. Pirouettes, kick-outs, and heel-toes textured a curling wave. Kick-taps of thrust made sea foam, tufts of vapor transformed into gulls. Time lost meaning as she flew around and through her sculpture.

As the wave took form, Easel Two positioned another fluff mass and set it adrift. If her timing was right it would become the wave's crest, coinciding with the breaking light. Surely Mansel Reefik would notice that. Then she could use her win here and get fat commissions like the Maya Brothers, or deep-pocket sponsors like Becka.

A flashing red light in the corner of her eye broke her dream.

Easel Two wobbled beneath her. The unit's vapor unit vomited artificial fluff like a can of whipped cream. She dove at her easel, stopping just short of crashing. She smacked her hand against the vapor unit's emergency cutoff switch, and tried to figure out what was going wrong. One of the rotors sounded like the motor was filled with rocks. It alternated between full-power spin and dead-stop.

A crackle of static came over the radio. “Miss Dianalar,” the voice said, “Your easel appears to be malfunctioning.”

A smell like burnt toast and rusty metal came to her through the suit's filters. Black tendrils wafted from the seams in the unit's housing. Pippa bit off the impulse to shout something about the speaker's command of the obvious. She forced herself to calm down.

”Yes, Control, I'm assessing it now.” She drifted closer.

“Can you correct it?”

She chewed her lip. “I don't know.”

“We're bringing it down.”

“No!” She said, the sound coming out louder than she intended. She repeated it a little softer. “No, Control, I can fix it.”

There was a pause over the radio. She reached the unit, and started unscrewing the access panel. The radio came back to life, and a deeper voice spoke. “Negative. We're bringing it down now.” The voice held a tone of someone used to having orders obeyed. “Get clear, Miss Dianalar.”

Pippa worked at the screws. Her seascape was drifting. Time, she thought, just need a bit more time.

“Control, my suit's caught. Give me a second.” She opened the panel. The smoke engulfed her head, clearing to reveal a twisted bundle of melted insulation, frayed wires, and carbon slag. She was out, the thought. No money, no grant, no client list.

“Piece of junk!” She kicked at the easel's frame. Part of the wire bundle fell out of the panel. She saw a white-blue flash before her world went dark.

She woke up to a ringing in her ears. The easel fell end over end below her, trailing a thick coil of black smoke. She watched it shrink and disappear. The only sign of its landing was a small fleck of white as it hit the sea. She looked up, following the smoke trail.

A part of her noted that her suit had taken over and stopped her fall about fifty meters from the explosion. The rest of her focused on the mass of black smoke in her fluff. The sculpture's bottom, now without an easel, had started to drift away.

The ringing in her head went down a notch and she realized a voice on the radio was calling her name. “Dianalar! Respond!”

“I'm here.” She said. Her chest felt hollow.

"Do you need to declare an emergency?"

That would clear the airspace, possibly canceling the competition, she thought.

"No, Control, I'm fine, apart from being one easel down."

"We're going to need to take your other unit in as a precaution."


She set her suit to hold and stared up at her seascape. The sculpture had morphed from an ocean wave into bloated spider with dirty silk spewing from it. A spider with only five legs, she noted. A wind stream pushed the fluff so the spider appeared to be falling on its back.

Something tickled at the back of her mind. No, not a spider. She looked again. She opened her glove, and looked between it and the black cloud. She keyed the radio.

"Control, am I still eligible?" she said.

"Ahhh -- Technically, Miss Dianalar. But how you're -"


She cut the channel, and looked over the fluff. Four minutes left.

She flew to the windward edge of the smoke, and looped from the center of the black mass to a smoke coil. She eyeballed the arc and contorted her body as she fought to keep exactly the same distance between herself and the coil.

"Four, three, two, one," she said and turned into the wind. When she was out fifty meters, she turned and looked. The smoke trail curved and abruptly broke off where her wake had arced and cut across. It worked, she thought, she had turned the coil into a curling finger.

"Four more to go." The countdown timer in her HUD read three minutes ten seconds.

As the timer ticked down to zero, she made three more fingers and a stubby thumb. Her legs and hips burned. Her faceplate fogged with each breath. She had to use dead reckoning to estimate length, angles, and wind drift, but it had worked. Where the spider had been, she now had a black hand, palm up, with fingers uncurling in the wind.

"Well, it ain't much," she said as the sun broke the horizon, "but it's mine."

After she landed, the event techs said her easel had something called an arc flash, and she was lucky that the concussion and electrical arc hadn't damaged her suit. She nodded at them and made the appropriate sounds, just wanting to leave. They eventually cleared other easel and let her go.

She looked at Becka's first place sculpture, a tableau featuring three of the colony's great statesmen. Two looked over the crowd, while the other pointed at the horizon in challenge. As usual, Becka had layered her fluff so that the eyes appeared bright and hopeful. The Maya's work was the crowd favorite, a reenactment of the Battle of Trafalgar, complete with billowy sails and gunpowder haze. They played to the crowd now, sending their drones flying out the tall ships' cannons. Pippa watched a drone erupt from one man o' war and plunge into the fluff of another, leaving a gaping hole in the enemy hull.

Pippa sat, hugging her knees to her chest. A black smudge in the sky was all that remained of her sculpture. She heard the grass crunch behind her. She turned to see Becka, staring past her at the smudge.

"I was sorry to hear about your disqualification," Becka said.

Pippa sighed. "I couldn't just leave it unfinished. They cited the rule against using artificial coloring agents, even accidental ones."

"I quite liked it. You turned the fluff into what it wanted to be, rules or no rules."

The tightness in Pippa's chest eased enough to let out a small laugh. "Thanks. It'll probably be the last one I ever make."

"Really?" Becka said, "You mean to quit?"

Pippa shrugged. "I don't want to, but I can't afford another easel, and can't sculpt with just one. I'll probably have to sell the damned thing to make rent this month."

"How unfortunate."

"Yeah, well, at least I went out with a bang." She smiled.

Becka wrinkled her nose. "Quite." Becka looked down at her, lips pursing. "I find it a sin for an artist to quit because her tools failed her. Perhaps you would reconsider?"

"How's that?" Pippa said.

"I can put you in touch with my shop's easel tech, Naomi. She will teach you how to repair and properly maintain your easels."

"I can't cover the costs of spare parts."

Becka gave her a lopsided grin. "I'm sure you could work off the costs by helping around the shop, if you take to your lessons. Naomi and I are always short-handed."

Working with Becka in own shop? Her words all ran together, jamming her voice. All that came out was "I -- yes!"

"Good. We will expect you tomorrow morning."

"Yes, of course. Thank you!"

"You're welcome, Miss Dianalar." Becka gave a little nod and walked off.

After she left, Pippa looked back at her work. The smoke had disappeared, leaving clean white fluff behind. Her eyes drifted over to the Mayas' sea battle. She made a few lines on her sketch pad and started up her remaining easel, sending it howling away towards the battle.

She located Carlos, and shouted. He turned as her easel passed overhead. He looked at her, puzzled.

“Prepare to repel boarders!” She yelled.

Carlos froze, dumbfounded for a moment before slapping his thigh. “We knew you'd come around, Senhora!” He turned and ran toward his brother, shouting in rapid-fire Portuguese.

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