Only with zeppelins, you could paint whimsical images across a whole stretch of the real sky.
Tor shook her head.
But no. That wasn’t it. Even bare and gray, they could not be ignored. Silent, gigantic, utterly calm, a zep seemed to stand for a kind of grace that human beings might build, but never know in their own frenetic lives.
She was nibbling at one of her active-element fingernails -- thinking about Wesley, waiting at the skydock for her arrival, and trying to picture his face -- when a voice intruded from above.
“Will you be wanting anything else before we arrive in the Federal District, Madam?”
She glanced up at a servitor -- little more than a boxy delivery receptacle -- that clung to its own slim rail on a nearby bulkhead, leaving the walkway free for passengers.
“No, thanks,” Tor murmured automatically, a polite habit of her generation. Younger folk had already learned to snub machinery slaves, except when making clipped demands. A trend that she found odd, since the ais were getting smarter all the time.
“Can you tell me when we’re due?”
“Certainly, Madam. There is a slowdown in progress due to heightened security. Hence, we may experience some delay crossing the Beltway. But there is no cause for alarm. And we remain ahead of schedule because of that tailwind across the Appalachian Mountains.”
“Hm. Heightened security?”
“For the Artifact Conference, Madam.”
Tor frowned. She hoped that Wesley wouldn’t have any trouble coming to meet her. Things might be tense enough between the two of them, without this added irritant. Wesley tended to get all lathered and indignant over being beamed and probed by agents of the pencipushers’ guild... the civil servants assigned to checking every conceivable box and possible failure mode.
“For the Artifact Conference?” Tor’s thoughts zeroed-in on something puzzling. “But that should already be taken into account. Security for the gathering shouldn’t affect our timetable.”
“There is no cause for alarm,” the servitor repeated. “We just got word, two minutes ago. An order to reduce speed, that’s all.”
Glancing outside, Tor could see the effects of slowing, in a gradual change of altitude. The Spirit’s tow cable slanted a little steeper, catching up to the ground-hugging locomotive tug.
Altitude: 359 meters said a telltale in the corner of her left TruVu lens.
“Will you be wanting to change seats for our approach to the nation’s capital?” the servitor continued. “An announcement will be made when we come within sight of the Mall, though you may want to claim a prime viewing spot earlier. Children and first time visitors get priority, of course.”
A trickle of tourists had already begun streaming forward to the main Observation Lounge. Parents, dressed in bright-colored sarongs and patagonian slacks, herded kids who sported the latest youth fashion -- fake antennae and ersatz scales -- imitating some of the alien personalities that had been discovered aboard the Livingstone Object... also called, for some reason, the Havana Artifact. A grand conference may have been called to declare whether it was a genuine case of First Contact, or just another hoax. But popular culture had already cast judgment.
The Artifact was cool.
“You say an alert came through two minutes ago?” Tor wondered. Nothing had flashed yet in her peripherals. But maybe the vigilance thresholds were set too high. With a rapid series of clicks on her tooth implants, she adjusted them downward.
Immediately, crimson tones began creeping in from the edges of her specs, offering links that whiffed and throbbed unpleasantly.
“Not an alert, Madam. No, no. Just preliminary, precautionary --”
But Tor’s attention had already veered. Using both clicks and subvocal commands, she sent her specs swooping through the data overlays of virtuality, following threads of a security situation. Sensors tracked every twitch of the iris, following and often anticipating her choices, while colored data-cues jostled and flashed.