copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers
Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet
By Don Sakers
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 Ive gathered from our news and such, and
Goddess knows our media are biased. But the fact remains that
youre 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,
How about just plain nosy? someone
Jannet looks exasperated. Heres the truth. Some
of the Nexus bigwigs are concerned about the human rights situation
in North America. Since were all here for the Terran Council
anyway, they asked us to find out what we could. She spreads
her hands. Thats it. I suppose it would be fair enough
to call that spying, if you want.
Rita smiles. Dont get me wrongI have nothing
against spying. To tell the truth, I find it rather exciting.
Rita catches herself glancing around, out of habit
is turned off and the ballroom is blocked, so there is no one
to hear, note, and report. What are these human rights
Jannet looks away, but Thea meets Ritas gaze. The
Nexus is concerned about your governments treatment of
dissenters. Were told that a certain number of criminals
are transported each year to agricultural space settlementsbut
when we try to directly estimate the population of those settlements,
the two numbers dont match. Somewhere, thousands are going
missing. Some of them show up as refugees here on Earth, and
thats 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
What do you think is happening to the missing people?
We dont even know if there are any missing
people. Maybe your government is over-reporting the number of
transportees. Thats the factor were 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 Ill bet, Girald says, The real
figures arent 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. Thats
right, you dont have a databand. Theyre frowned upon
here, arent 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, Id
like to talk to you about your headband, later, and shuts
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.
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 todays data, there
are really more like five hundred sixty million.
The elfin-faced boy, Ray Schmidt, shakes his head. That
cant be right. No government could mis-state their population
that much. How could they get away with it?
Rita speaks up, Actually, theres 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 discrepanciestheir
intelligence services werent 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 theyll 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
youre talking about, today? Surely the AIs would know.
Girald leans forward, elbows on the table and fingers interlaced.
Ray, mlad, you should know by now that the AIs dont
share our concepts of morality. They dont know what makes
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, theyll 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. Theyre just playing along with
Ray shakes his head. I know AIs, and theyre 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 doesnt wait for an answer.
Regardless of the AIs, Jannet says, We have
reliable results. Its established that North Americas
figures are incorrect, and that two to three million North Americans
disappeared last year. So far as we know, the Nexus cant
account for where theyve gone.
But we know it has something to do with the repressive
theocracy that these people have saddled themselves with,
People were afraid, Rita says. People are
afraid. You dont 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. Youre that Rita Cuervo. You
were interviewed all over the place.
How do youoh, 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.
Wed lost so much. And President Dobson had a plan that
gave us security. She looks off into the distance, remembering.
There wasnt 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. Nobodys 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. Europes birthrate dropped
to nearly nothing, and theyve hunkered down to wait out
the impact cycle. She purses her lips. The Nexus
is just concerned, thats all.
So what now? Tadj asks.
Jaison smiles. Now nothing. Youve done your jobs;
its up to the Nexus to decide what action theyre
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 Jaisons right. Theres nothing else we can do
until the bigwigs make their decisions.
In that case, Jannet stands and offers her hand
to Rita, Lets 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 Jannets
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 Jannets 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. Its not even midnight yet.
We can come back. I just want to take a break.
Elaine looks in Ritas 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. Im used to keeping up with nine-year-olds;
this bunch is a lot worse.
Jannet laughs. Lets 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?
Im curious, Rita says. Ive read
about them, but Ive never seen one in person.
Elaine takes off her headband hand hands it to Rita. Take
The band is dark brown, a match to Elaines 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
Rita hands it back. Whats 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 its reading
Rita shakes her head. I cant imagine it. It must
be a lot more convenient than a Guardian Angel.
Ray leans forward. Would you like to try one?
I-I dont 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 Elaines 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 doesnt 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
Ritas own hair, extends outward from the comb.
Elaine nods. I think its a good choice. If your
government frowns on databands, you want one that wont
Rita lifts the comb doubtfully. How do I do this?
Lets do this in a mirror. Come into the bathroom.
Elaine pulls some of Ritas hair together in the back
and mounts the comb. You wear your hair pretty short, so
this shouldnt be hard. She brushes Ritas 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 Ritas scalp. There, when you brush
your hair over them, you can barely see that youre wearing
Rita turns her head from side to side, examining her reflection.
True, the filaments are almost invisible. What do I do
Come sit down, and Im going to turn you over to
Ray. Hes 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. Im going to activate your band now. Its
best if you close your eyes.
Rita does so. Afterimages dance briefly, then she sees only
vague swirls of almost-color. She feels Rays 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 cant help an exclamation of surprise. It says
Good, Ray answers. Give an order. Ask for
Keeping her eyes closed, Rita asks, What time is it?
Figures wink on, stay for a moment, then fade away. Thats
You can open your eyes now. She does. The first
thing she sees is Rays face; instantly, floating letters
superimposed on his forehead identify him as Ray Schmidt,
Nexus, Schmidt Foundation, age 22. As she reads them, the
She looks around the room, noticing Elaine Stockard,
Nexus, Wal-Mart, age 21 and Jannet Hoister, Nexus,
Maris Institute, age 20. Very nice. Its just
like wearing dataspex.
I assume youll 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 Ritas 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 shes wearing a databand. Suddenly,
this doesnt seem such a good idea.
Only with Terranet. The databand doesnt have the
protocols to interface with your regional network.
So the church AIs wont 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 dont you?
Ray looks at the irridescent strip in his hand. Oh,
this is just an external interface for programming your band.
He chuckles. You wouldnt know it, but I have Down
Syndrome. They implanted all these little nanoprocessors in my
brain. Theyre linked to a control unit that I wear on my
belt. With all of that, a databand would be redundant.
Wait, youre telling me that your brain is directly
connected to the net?
No, thats 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. Daisys
familiar fairy-simulacrum appears and executes a smart bow, eyes
a-twinkle. The transfer is complete, Rita.
Rita cant help smiling. Its 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. Thats amazing. You mean
I can access any of my data, without having to put on Spex?
Private message from Jannet Hoister: You really
ought to give him a kiss.
Surprised, Rita looks at Jannetwho gives her a wink.
So Rita puts her hand on Rays shoulder, leans forward for
a quick peck on his cheek, and whispers, Thank you.
Ray, blushing, turns away. It wasnt any trouble,
Jannet, crossing her arms, says, Okay, are we rested
enough? I want to dance some more.
Elaine stretches and yawns. You three go ahead. Im
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
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
Temporary? Did he say you had to give it back?
Not in so many words. But Im sure
That doesnt sound right. Hold on, Ill 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 Rays face appears, superimposed over
Ritas field of vision. She hears his voice distinctly.
No. Rita, its yours to keep as long as you want.
I couldnt. Its too expensive. She
doesnt actually have any idea how much a databand cost,
but she knows that a good, adult-style Guardian Angel runs several
Thats silly. The Schmidt Foundation manufactures
them. I always have a dozen or so spares to play around with.
Truly. And if anyone cares, Ill tell them that this was
a promotional model. Complimentary from Grandfathers company.
Rays image vanishes, and Girald smiles. There.
the databands yours to keep. What do you think of it?
Im still getting used to it. I feel like Ive
just opened my eyes, after having them closed for a long time.
Theres 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, Ill 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
shouldnt do this often, but a little bit cant hurt.
In a flicker, things change. Rita cant say exactly what
is different, but the world seems a little clearer, her own mood
a little lighter, Giralds proximity a little less ominous.
How do you feel? Girald withdraws slightly.
dont know. How am I supposed to feel?
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. Its like putting your brain into a tiny bit
of overdrive. Most people experience heightened awareness and
a mild euphoria.
Rita nods. Thats just about right. Im happy.
Not giddy or anything, but happy. She locks her gaze on
him. Youre doing it now too, arent 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. Its a lot healthier than coke or booze.
And no hangover in the morning. His grin slackens. If
you dont like it, I can turn it off.
Rita holds up a hand. No. Ive just discovered
this, I want to find out what its like.
Okay. His grin returns, broader than before. Want
to dance some more?
Rita considers. Shes tired
but at the same time,
shes buzzing with new energy, and she wants to try moving
some more. With a grin to match Giralds, she takes his
It doesnt 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 hasnt let herself go for far too long; in the years
since she started teaching, she hasnt been drunk and has
seldom allowed herself to get high. With her political and religious
beliefs, and Guardian Angels always on the watch, shes
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. Im glad you came here
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.
Jannets gentle half-embrace keeps Rita on the couch.
Whats wrong, Rita? I thought you were having fun
I am. Its just that I have to be at school at
Girald snorts. Hon, youd better call in sick.
Ray says, Can you?
Rita considers. She cant 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. Itll
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 Ramierezs 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
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 schools
personnel computer. Ritas 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, Its time for bed. Im
As everyone gathers themselves for bedtime, Jannet draws Rita
slightly aside. We usually sleep...er...all togther. One
of the bedrooms is decked out with air mattresses. Then,
half as a question, We can make other arrangements, if
Rita shakes her head. No, actually, that sounds fine.
Im used to that sort ao arrangment. Covens do something
similar for Beltane and Samhain.
Okay. As long as you dont mind.
Ray approaches her as shes 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 youre ready to sleep, use the command execute
narco-induction. Your headband will induce delta waves.
Youll get deep, natural sleep and wake up refreshed.
Thanks. When is the meeting tomorrow?
Noon. But everbody wont be there until thirteen,
thriteen-thirty. The formal session wont start until fourteen,
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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