X7
Ariel Cruz
Originally published in the virtual magazine i+Real
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon)


        In Sector E-17 they followed the curving sweep of a street. The man glanced around with interest as he smoked a cigarette.
        “Who are they?”
        “Iawaks,” answered the kid who was with him.
        “Iawaks?”
        “They come from the East. They have been migrating here for the last two years, since the Exodus. They settle in this part of the city, squatting in properties abandoned by the Terraformers.
        The man ordered the robot who was driving to lower the sigma without reducing its speed.
        “What are they carrying?”
        Outside a group of the strange beings had gathered and were struggling to wedge some huge cylindrical tank into some sort of building.
        The kid shrugged his shoulders.
        “Who can tell? The Iawaks spend their life moving about with the most excessive items just for the simple joy of collecting. They are all incurable thieves; the jails are full of them…It’s not advisable to hang around here very long,” he concluded as he shifted about in his seat, but no one seemed to take him seriously.
        Instead of that the other one leaned once more toward the window, fascinated. He wanted to ensure that the sigma in which he was seated was the only one cruising through the narrow street.
        “They don’t use machines to move around?”
        “Only some wheeled autos. The Iawaks possess a pathological fear of flying.”
        The synthesized voice of the robot interrupted:
        “Is that why they are observing us so closely?”
        “I suppose they have never before seen a sigma like this one passing through, and they are curious. I’ve never seen an X6 myself. Apart from the ads, of course.”
        “X7,” the robot corrected.
        The kid scratched his neck as he looked around at the comfortable interior of the vehicle: the black seats, the curved instrument panel, the climate stabilizers.
        “I never even knew such things existed.”
        “They still don’t, really,” the owner interjected. “Cedric incorporated certain variants of the original design. If you are interested…”
        The robot then launched into a complete technical dissertation, gesturing occasionally to punctuate his words. He had almost finished when he mentioned the hyperspatial transporter: according to the robot, its installation had not been particularly difficult.
        At this point, the kid leaned forward:
        “Did you say hyperspatial transporter?”
        It had to be a joke.
        “Exactly, sir.”
        Nothing in the robot’s expression suggested that he was pulling his leg. The kid thought for a moment.
        “And where were you planning on going, if I may ask?”
        “Oh, we have a list,” the man interrupted, smiling, “A list of wheres and whens. We have all the time in the world at our disposal, and we love to travel… Unfortunately, Cedric could not complete his design for the controlling device.”
        “But, without a controlling device the whole system is worthless,” the young man looked at both of them, no longer entirely sure.
        “Not exactly,” the vehicle’s owner smiled with an air of satisfaction. “It is true that at the moment we can neither determine its destination coordinates nor guarantee return, but even so the HS transporter is very useful for eliminating toxic rubbish and enlivening our encounters with our buddies. You should see the faces they make when we make a cigarette lighter disappear before their eyes and explain to them that maybe it landed on the Sun, or at the other end of the galaxy, or a half-million years in the past…”
        The kid looked up. He studied the interior once more. “So despite everything, you still installed this reckless plaything in this sigma?” he asked.
        “Certainly, my young friend. Like I told you, we travel all the time, and we spend a lot of time inside. That reckless plaything serves to entertain our guests…, or to get rid of them, if they turn all know-it-all or skeptical on us. Right, Cedric?”
        “Yes, sir,” the robot said, winking an eye through its retrovisor camera.
        The sigma now flew barely a meter above the ground.
       
        The Lame Coyote owed its name to an old spiritual song of the Iawaks. It had stood at the muddy bend in the road for as long as anyone could remember, leaking music into the night air out of the cracks in its wooden walls, and inside its dark interior it sheltered any thirsty immigrant who found his way there.
        It broke even only on weekends and paydays.
        Almos, the owner, was an old Iawak nostalgic for his land and his ancestors. A teller of stories and fables, he was often inebriated and was generous with his customers. He had a complicated theory about the role of his people in Modern Society, which he often elaborated for his patrons between hiccups and fistfights at the tables. On these occasions his son, with a wrinkled brow and a ferocious glare, took care of the bar and the register.
        Meanwhile, Almos launched into a tirade against the Great City, from its most sophisticated to its most obscene, with an infectious satisfaction. Having arrived at the metropolis long before the Exodus of the Terraformers, he claimed to understand them thoroughly.
        It was for this reason that when some newly arrived Iawak repeated some of their insults, the old man confronted him with shiny eyes and asked:
        “What the hell do you know about Modern Society, you stinking piece of shit? Have you poked your head out from under your rock since you got here?”
        And he continued in that vein until his uijuru drinking made it completely impossible for him to keep his eyes open. When he was in a good humor, the regulars at the bar called him The Pioneer, but more often they called him The Skank Lover.
        That night, confronted with a young man who had just arrived from the Mountains of Mhabur, the old man told of one of his favorite heroes, the last remaining genuine representative, he said, of the rich Iawak tradition: Uidav Lenard.
        “What did he do when the black police trapped him? Cry like a wounded wolf? No! Ask for mercy from the justice of Modern Society? No! What did he do, then? He laughed right in their faces! I can still hear his roars of laughter filling the streets! Ha, Ha, Ha!” he said.
        “And maybe you were there?!” Rew, the butcher muttered in a corner of the room as he spat on the ground.
        “I don’t think so, it’s been years since he’s stepped out of the bar,” Hetch the bum answered, in an equally low voice.
        Almos continued:
        “What did he do when they tortured him savagely, stuffed him into one of their infernal flying machines and flew up millions of kilometers above the ground?” he screamed at the top of his voice, despite being only a few centimeters from the young man. The kid opened his eyes up wide trying to imagine such a punishment. “He asked them to show him Mount Idle!”
        “What a guy! Just like his dead father, who was one of the best.”
        He half-closed his eyes and lowered his voice:
        “You kids could learn a lot from Uidav, take that as an example. Because some day he will get out of prison, where his multiple terms for assaults and robberies -- all of them admirable -- are a badge of honor, and he will lead this people. And he will show you the way toward moral liberation: Modern Society, diabolical mechanism that it is, needs the ethical and the moral, just as it needs tons of norms, rules and laws; they are the supports without which it cannot advance on its own power. We, on the other hand, have to dispense with such trappings; our ancestors never needed such subjective precepts. The contamination of the metropolis must never make us lose our identity or our values. We cannot fall into the trap of imitating its mechanisms, or even worse its mistakes, on either a social or an individual level.”
        The eyes of the kid began to wander. He had lost the thread completely and now no longer knew what the old man was talking about. He tried to lift his mug of beer to his mouth and Almos blocked him with his hand.
        “Let’s examine the concept of sacrifice,” he offered. “What is sacrifice?”
        Panicked, the kid looked left and right, but nobody volunteered a response. Most of them had passed through this ritual already, and they had little compassion for a newcomer.
        “Well…I…suppose that it means to fight for something… to sacrifice yourself to achieve what you want.”
        “Before or after you get it?”
        “Before, I guess.”
        “Give me an example.”
        The young man paused, sensing all the eyes in the room upon him.
        “Well, let’s say… you work extra hours during the week in order to buy a couple of rounds of beer for your friends on Sunday. That’s sacrifice,” he said, and he smiled, pleased with himself. The definition had come out better than he had expected.
        “No!” screamed Almos. “A real Iawak would never speak like that!” he bellowed, hunting for the support of the others and pointing at the frightened boy. “Damn it, son. Just arrived in the City and already you think like that?”
        He paused and breathed in deeply.
        “Listen, kid,” he continued, slowly, “If there are many kinds of sacrifice for the inhabitants of the City, there is only one for an Iawak: that which you assume as a consequence for your acts. When an Iawak wants something, he takes it. A woman, an object, money, it’s all the same. In Modern Society they call that theft, and they hang an accusatory sneer on that word. But their entire society is based on theft: those who have steal from those who don’t. They rob your time and your effort and your life for a little wad of money, pitifully small for those who work. But let’s leave that issue aside for now. We take what we want without worrying what punishment it brings. Broken bones, prison, death…? Our ancestors showed us that there was honor in that. On the other hand, if you are able enough or lucky enough, you can acquire certain goods without suffering any penalty at all. Is there any greater pleasure than that?
        “Like everyone else, I took over this locale two years ago,” he said, pointing to his surroundings, “and nobody has come to punish me for taking it. If I had decided to obtain it by their means, I would have had to have slaved for decades to please someone else, and I might never have been able to save the money I would need. Unacceptable. Better to gamble it all in one shot.”
        He leaned back.
        “The Iawaks were happy and untamable beings in the epic times. Nobody, under any circumstances, could have converted them into simple… laborers. They carried it in their blood. Now there’s only Uidav. I never had to explain these things to him. He began to grab what he wanted when he was two and half. That’s why it pains me to see strong healthy youth like you lower yourselves to…”
        “Come on, Almos,” the hoarse voice of Hetch interrupted from the corner. “Give the kid a chance to breathe. He only wants a drink.”
        “I see that you’ve forgotten a few things, Hetch. You’ve lost your people’s conscience.”
        “And you’ve lost your mind. Everyone’s got his problems. Leave the kid alone.”
        “You folks need a kick. You need a guide. My prayer today to Zahur is that I might see the face of the last true Iawak before I die.”
        It was in that moment that a blinding light penetrated through every window and crevice in the Lame Coyote, as if the night were instantly transformed into day. Rew the butcher was the first to react and run to the window.
        “By my faith, friends, Zahur lives. And He has answered The Pioneer’s call.”
       
        Uidav Lenard had just arrived in an enormous bright sigma, the headlights and sidelights of which had converted the scene into an unreal phantasmagorical dream.
        He entered the Lame Coyote and launched into a string of obscenities at the top of his lungs which was met by the enthusiastic applause of the congregants of the tumbledown bar.
        “My son,” old Almos said as he advanced emotionally toward the man and they dissolved in a hug. “I was afraid I’d never see you again.”
        “Zahur is great, old man,” Uidav said glancing around him, pleased. “You don’t have a drink for a newcomer?”
        An overflowing stein of steaming uijuru passed from hand to hand until reaching the hero, who drank noisily as the liquid flowed down his beard and hardened there.
        “There is no drink like that which you keep in your barrels, you old sewer rat,” he said, and they both laughed uproariously.
        Watching this scene with fascination, the newcomer from the mountains remained fixed in his seat, silently comparing the mute reception he had just received with the spectacle he was witnessing. Without a doubt, Uidav Lenard had the stuff of heroes. Just the thought of climbing into one of those vehicles that lift effortlessly off the ground…The thought of such daring made the hairs on his neck stand on end, one after the other. He ordered another tankard of beer.
        They got Uidav to sit and gathered around his table. As the news spread, more Iawaks began to arrive. They all saluted him with respect and admiration. Almos ordered his son to prepare something for the newcomer to eat.
        “I suppose you are hungry,” he said smiling, as he turned a chair around and sat himself down in front of Uidav. “But, now, tell us how you got out of prison.”
        For half an hour, he related the details of his escape. The old man and the others listened attentively, their eyes wide and their mouths half-open, laughing from time to time at their hero’s exploits, admiring his nerve and intelligence.
        Many rounds of beer flowed, all on the house. Almos couldn’t contain himself, he was euphoric; with Uidav among them, everything had changed. When the soup and steak arrived, he asked:
        “What plans do you have? Our people need a leader.”
        But he shook his head.
        “I can’t stay here much longer. The police are on my tail. I’ve only got a day or two, after that they’ll catch my scent. To tell the truth, I only came to see my children. What have you heard from them?”
        All conversation stopped immediately. A tense silence fell over the dark room. The Iawak’s spoon froze suspended between his mouth and his plate.
        “What happened?” he asked.
        “Your wife,” Almos finally said. “left with a man from the city. And she took the kids. It is a shame for our people, a beautiful, virtuous woman like that…”
        UIdav’s face remained expressionless for several minutes.
        “A rich man?”
        Almos and Rew looked at each other.
        “Right. A big shot from the spaceport, where our exploited brothers labor day after day.”
        Uidav thought about it.
        “Well, in that case I suppose they won’t be asking me for money,” he said finally and launched into a hearty laugh that showed off his broken teeth.
        Everyone laughed with him, despite old Almos’ consternation. Then, amid the laughter, they heard a voice coming from the corner.
        “Hey, hero, what’s with the flying machine?”
        All eyes turned to the table where the young mountain boy was finishing a beer.
        “What kind of question is that?” Almos asked. “He stole it, of course.”
        “Wait a minute,” Uidaev interrupted, speaking to the old man. “I know what he means.”
        “The drink has gone to his head. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
        Uidav got to his feet, passing his forearm over the corner of his lips.
        “There is nothing wrong with flying,” he said. “Someone managed to convince me long ago that we would go crazy if we tried it. But I have since discovered that he was mistaken.”
        Almos emphatically shook his head no. “There were cases of madness among Iawaks that mounted aerial vehicles in the heroic days. Our people are not prepared for that.”
        “Nonsense, old man. Do you know how quickly a sigma can cover the distance between the Mountains of Mhabur and the city? In 35 minutes: it takes our people two years to make that journey by foot. I was small then, but I remember. In a machine like that one outside I could escape from the police and cross the border to places where their laws don’t apply, returning again whenever I pleased. With such machines they have tricked us, immobilized us, destroyed us. We will always be a miserable people until we confront Modern Society with its own weapons. Ignorance and sloth can not prevail.
        They were all silent. Quietly Almos interrupted:
        “The Iawaks of the epic times…”
        “The Iawaks of the epic times were all illiterate, old man; do we have to be as well? In prison I learned to read and discovered a few interesting things.” He raised his voice. “For example, those outside are not superior to us! We are all equal, down to the last bone, there is no difference! How do you like that?”
       
        Impulsively, he left the bar for the cold night air, followed by the others. Floating smoothly a few centimeters off the ground, the silvery sigma reflected on its shiny surface everything that was going on around it.
        Uidav lifted the plastic cover of the cabin and a raucous song filled the air, accompanied by an agreeable aroma of cleanliness and comfort. He jumped into the front of the machine, which smoothly absorbed the impact and returned to its original position.
        “I think right now I am going to take a spin around the Western zone just to laugh at them. And nobody can stop me now. Anyone care to join me? Almos?”
        Old Almos muttered something and remained where he was.
        Just then the young mountain boy staggered to the door with much difficulty. He was plastered.
        “Wait a minute, hero, I’ll go with you,” he stuttered, and, true to his word, he climbed into the vehicle, albeit with difficulty.
        “Shit, there’s blood here,” he muttered for the others behind him. He made himself comfortable in the back seat and rested his mud-covered boots on the control panel. “Hey Uidav, whenja learn to fly this baby?”
        “There is nothing to learn, it’s straightforward. You only need to be able to read and select. How does it feel?”
        The kid opened a leather-lined compartment and pulled out a cigar. He touched a small glass lighter to the end and felt himself being carried away by the combination of the perfumed aroma and the music. He glanced down at the crowd which watched him with a mixture of envy and fear.
        “Listen, Iawaks. This is fantastic!”
        And he let out a wild laugh.
        Below, Almos stuck his hands in his pants pockets and muttered something between his teeth. “I am an old man. What the hell. You only live once,” he said, and he stepped forward. “That kid is not going to make me look like a coward. Rew, help me up!”
        That was the signal that started the stampede. They were tripping all over each other to climb aboard, until the sigma almost touched the muddy ground. In less than a minute, sixteen Iawaks stuffed themselves into a six-seater sigma, forming an exuberant vibrant mass.
        “Ready?” Uidav asked.
        “Let’s fly,” Almos cheered. “Let’s show them what the Iawak are made of!”
        Uidav searched the control panel; this would require a grand exit. He spotted a small rectangle which he had not seen before, which showed the letters HS. “High speed,” he thought, “just what I need,” and he let out a shout of joy. The alley was deserted in front of him. He jammed the pedal to the floor and the sigma, still motionless, produced an insistent hissing and vibrated strongly.
        “Hang on!” he yelled and pressed the button.
        A blinding light forced everyone on the ground to look away. It lasted only a few seconds and produced a feeling in the crowd that reality around them had changed as in a movie, altering every point of reference, making the most common details unrecognizable.
        A sharp whistle filled the air, accompanied by a white puff of smoke which took several moments for the evening wind to sweep away. It was then that Hetch, who had stayed behind, looked again and noticed that the machine remained in place, sophisticated and brilliant, stationary… and empty.
       
        A week has passed since The Departure.
        Suspended a few centimeters above the mud in front of the Lame Coyote, the lights of the sigma remain lit day and night and a quiet music still oozes from its interior. Its brilliant cover reflects the bustle that goes on around it.
        Because the formerly static Iawak mindset began to change right after The Incident. No one expects that Uidav and the others will ever return. A blessing from the heavens, no doubt, and not simply because they were sick of Almos’ lecturing: the machine was a sign.
        Uidav Lenard – may the devil take him – brought the machine to mock the superstitions which had isolated the Iawaks and to signal the road toward their integration with the Big City. He vindicated his people and then disappeared spectacularly before the entire assembly, converted into a hero; all in one night.
        It is a great opportunity, and the Iawaks are resolved to take advantage of it. They have a machine, they have a hero. And with those two things, one can go very far.

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