Saturday, October 27, 2012

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter IV: Rolling Towards Trouble

34 Spring, 1926

The Neil Motor Works Wagoneer bus bounced about on the old road, steadily putting distance between the passengers and their last stop. After the confines of the van in Port Arthur, the seven passengers had naturally spread out amongst the ten rows of old burgundy, barnaby-hide benches. Lyta was in the back, ostensibly watching for pursuers, though they had not seen another vehicle in an hour and the plume of dust kicked up by the oversized people carrier meant she was staring into an amorphous cloud of iron-rich sienna dust.

Vulpei crept up to her and picked up the conversation that had been dropped earlier, about Lyta's childhood aspirations. "Do you find it interesting that of all the things you chose to tell me in full honesty earlier today, you chose to tell me your dreams? I could hardly imagine a more personal piece of your soul to share."

Lyta shrugged. "It was a long time ago. And most of the stuff we've done recently, I can't tell you. Well, I could, but I'd have to lie. And I suck at lying."

Vulpei smiled, though Lyta wasn't trying to be clever. "Do not be so critical of yourself. Honesty is a virtue. I find it most endearing that you cannot lie well; it shows you have character."

"I guess. You lie pretty well, though," she retorted. Her gaze was still fixed on the dust cloud beyond the rear window, hoping the Southerner would get the hint and leave her alone.

"Yes, I do, but does that make me endearing? No, I think not. And I know you agree."

Sighing, she looked at him for the first time. "Well, it makes you a hard guy to have a conversation with."

He stroked his chin, as though she had said something deeply meaningful that required him to consider carefully before continuing. "Well, then I propose a truce on lying, which is not to say we cannot refrain from uncomfortable and impractical topics like our work. Do you agree?"

Lyta shrugged again. "Sure. I suck at it anyway. I told you." She turned around, somewhat reluctantly, to face him properly.

"Excellent!" Vulpei replied enthusiastically. “I enjoy a challenge, which is the first thing you should know about me. And speaking to you candidly without lying should pose an interesting challenge." He scratched his head as he sought a place to begin. "So, you know I am from the South and I know you are from the Badlands. I know you wanted to be in the Olympics as a child, and you know I am a pilot. We are off to a good start, non?" Lyta shrugged noncommittally. "Very well, this one with the mask, he is your brother, but the other one, he does not have the family resemblance. A friend, a childhood friend maybe, yes?"

Lyta nodded and glanced over at Todd. "Something like that, yeah."

Grinning like a trideo game-show contestant on a streak, he continued. "You are bodyguards sometimes, but only rarely by the look of things. I do not mean offence, it is simply the truth that you do not have the method just yet. So, no, you are mercenaries. Hired 'problem solvers,' as you say. That is dangerous work. Does no one worry for you, doing what you do?"

A shadow crossed Lyta's face. "We've got each other."

Vulpei realized he had gone too far, too fast and decided to turn the tables. "I'm sorry, Kes. I lost my mother and several cousins in the war."

"Sorry. That must have been hard." She replied flatly.

"My mother and I did not speak, not since my father and sister had died. They were divorced and I hated her for it. So non, it was not difficult at the time. Now that I am older, now it is difficult. It is less the loss than the regret of what could have been that breaks the heart. Do you understand?"

Lyta nodded in perfect understanding. "Yeah. I do." If there was one thing people had talked to her about in the last cycle, it was regret.

Vulpei frowned. "Feelings are not a weakness either, Kes. Like truth, they may be inconvenient, but they are honest and beautiful. Sadness, regret, dreams, and hopes. All these are more important than... well, than whatever we suppress them for."

Lyta blinked a few times. "That's... very Southern of you."

He smiled to himself. "We are the poets of Terra Nova," he said in a way that could have been genuine conceit or deadpan self-deprecation. Lyta couldn't tell which; he seemed to be all over the place. "Right. I guess poetry's never really been my thing. Too..." She struggled to find the right word, failed, and shrugged. "I guess it just makes simple things too complicated."

Alain shook his head sympathetically, "Words are not your art, Kes. I knew that almost immediately."

"Yeah, well, you seem to do both. Words and body, I mean." Lyta regretted the way she'd said it as soon as the words left her mouth, and she mentally kicked herself.

He smiled and bowed his head slightly. "You should hear me in my native tongue. Anglic is a blunt instrument for delicate sentiments. Do you dance, Kes?"

Lyta looked at him suspiciously. "Haven't we already been through this?"

He waived his hand in the air, figuratively dispelling the misunderstanding. "Non, non, not social shuffling of the feet! Performance!" he concluded with a broad gesture of both hands for added emphasis.

"No. Definitely no dance performances." Lyta replied with some amusement and surprise.

"You will," he said matter of factly, with complete conviction.

Lyta didn't bother hiding her skepticism. "Uh... huh. Dance performances? "Really?"

Shifting excitedly to face her more directly, Vulpei continued. "Of course. Tell me, when you are not doing this 'close quarter combat' you specialize in, when you are not on a job, what do you do to relieve the anxiety, the disappointment, the regret you feel? What do you do?"

Lyta hesitated, trying to decide how much to tell him. "I... run, I guess."

"Run, just run?" he said with a mix of incredulity and disappointment.

Her hesitation turned to anger. "Why? What do you do?"

Straightening himself in his seat, he looked at the dull beige ceiling of the bus. "I express myself. I just thought you..." He shook his head, “Perhaps I was wrong."

Defensively, Lyta turned towards him. "What? You thought I what?"

"I thought you might do something more... more challenging." He said in a patronizing tone. Then he closed his eyes and leaned his head back, apparently done with the conversation.

Lyta gave a small snort of disgust. "Uh-huh. Sorry to disappoint, then." She turned back to the window and the smoke plume kicked up by the Wagoneer.

Vulpei opened one eye in her direction and shut it again with a quickly suppressed grin. He waited a few moments before continuing. "It is better you never went to the Olympics; it would have broken your heart. Best to have your dreams, even if they are delusions."

Lyta ground her teeth, trying to stop herself from rising to the bait. She failed. "Yeah? Well, fuck you, Mister Cloak-and-Dagger whatever-your-name-is. You wanna be holier-than-thou and condescending, fine. You're the boss, and you wouldn't be the first one. You wanna piss on my hobbies, whatever. But you got no right -- no right to talk about the Olympics like that. I didn't get to go because the whole world was burning. Maybe not down in the South where you were, but the Badlands burned." She glared at him. Every pair of eyes in the Wagoneer turned to witness her outburst except one set. Lukas had been already been watching, and he now watched as Barb and Dawn tensed and flexed their fingers.

Everyone found something else to look at soon enough, though, before Lyta caught any of them staring.

Vulpei waited just long enough for the bumps in the road to punctuate the silence before speaking again. "And you have failed there, so maybe the war did you a favour."

"Believe me - the war did me no favours." Lyta stared him down, seething.

"Maybe not, maybe not. Well, you at least have your work. You may beat people up to free your disappointment. Or run," he said with disgust, "when you have no one to hit."

Lyta looked at him with barely-suppressed anger. "And what would you like me to tell you? That I fly helicopters while composing Mekongese ballads and doing CPR on small children? How do you know I wasn't competing in track? There are runners at the Olympics, you know."

"I mistook you for something more than a brute. Someone who can run hard in a straight line or over flimsy hurdles. I thought I was dealing with person who fused motion with creativity. Who could apply her mind to deconstructing a situation and then had the heart to bend her body to her will. That is an Olympian: not just someone who is strong, but someone with a soul. Any GREL can run and probably beat any human, that is nothing. Olympians are artists who express themselves in form and dedication, who live and breathe challenge." Vulpei had worked himself into a rage while he spoke and now locked eyes with Lyta. Their gazes met like two warships on the stormy sea.

Finally, still glaring, her lips curled into a small, tight smile. "Who said anything about running in a straight line?"

"Tell me," he demanded with urgency, eyes still full of fury and narrowing still further.

Lyta hesitated, but only for a beat before coming to the decision within herself. She licked her lips. "Gymnastics. I was a gymnast. The floor routines, those were my favourite. Just... you and your body, you know?" She relaxed as she spoke and remembered. She looked wistful for a just a moment.

Alain was on the edge of his seat, his expression one of barely restrained anticipation "Yes?" he whispered, short of breath.

She struggled, searching for the words, for the means to share, to say what she couldn't, and then sighed in defeat. She shrugged it off. "Anyway. I can't do that anymore. No way to do floors when you're... well, when you're in our line of work. But..." She paused, thinking of how to explain the B'Ti and its associated skills without actually mentioning the B'Ti.

"But, but what, what is it you do?" Alain pleaded, crestfallen that she had stopped when he felt he was so close to getting what he wanted.

Lyta took a deep breath. Something in his expression gave her courage and encouragement, and she tried again. "All right. Imagine the city is like a huge puzzle. Your job is to get from point A to point B. You can do it any way you want except running on the ground. Nothing's off-limits but that. What do you do? You've got a whole city. You know where you're going. Maybe you've got a roof, but it ends too soon. But there's a stairwell. Or a balcony. Maybe someone's got their laundry out and you can use it as a zip-line. Whatever. The point is you have to keep moving. You can't stop, because if you stop, you're done. So you're looking and calculating and figuring it all out, and always, always moving. Until you get where you're going." She leaned back, her skin tingling just thinking about the B'Ti. "That's what I do. When I need to get away from everything."

"You fly, Kes. You challenge your mind and your body and dance along the obstacles in your way. You let your body sing the song your heart plays? Yes?" His eyes were closed, as though in some kind of rapture. Lyta realized that she had never explained, never even attempted to explain the B'Ti to someone who didn't compete, let alone had never seen a course. She felt both uncomfortable, as if a private section of her soul had been laid bare, but also somehow pleased with his response. "I... That's not the words I would use, but I guess. Maybe."

"Then I was right. One day you will evolve past that marvellous experience and you will transcend into the very heart of it. And then you will see that even in the infinite flat plains of the desert you will do this jigsaw. This is a form, no more. What you are doing is expression. When you arrive at that point, you will not need the walls or the buildings. You will stand anywhere and dance. This is your true self." He looked into her eyes and said it with conviction.

Lyta suddenly felt very conscious of the way he was looking at her and turned away. "And what about you? Is that what piloting does for you?"

She could feel him settling back into his bench. "Non, non. The piloting is a childhood fantasy that a man can indulge. It has no more substance than a fast car or fast women." More at ease now that Vulpei was talking about himself, Lyta turned back and nodded for him to continue. "I too had a form like you; I found my art in the brush. I paint. My form was the only way I knew how to express myself. I did not know why I did what I did, only that I felt like my true self when I was in action. I longed for it when I was not competing. I trained, I fought, I did anything to have that exhilaration. I found my peace and fulfillment in painting. You see, my father painted. It was when I found his old brushes, that is when I knew. I just knew and I cried and I painted." Blushing slightly, Lyta could swear his eyes were starting to glisten. He turned away. "I have never told anyone that before."

Lyta paused, not sure if she wanted to pursue this new line of conversation. She wasn't entirely sure she was still speaking to same person. The desert spread out as far as the eye could see from the windows of the Wagoneer and the silence suddenly felt hollow. 'What the heck,' she thought. She cleared her throat. "So... what do you paint?"

He smiled, looking both younger and older at the same time. "It doesn't matter," he said introspectively. He leaned into her with a mischievous glint. "I'm not very good at it."

Lyta laughed. "Fair enough. I wouldn't be able to tell the difference anyway. I'm not really an art person."

Alain shook his head dismissively. “You have an art, even if it is not of the brush. When you dance on your obstacles, you do not design the parcours, but your expression lies in how to interpret the course. Actors do not invent their lines and the finest classical musicians do not write the music they play. Such is art. When you dance, you will express yourself, and if you choose to be great, then you must find a choreographer to help you choose the right movements."

Lyta blinked, trying to figure out if he was talking about her or just talking in general. She wasn't entirely certain she liked his implications.

"Like in floor routines in gymnastics," Alain continued while Lyta's discomfort grew. “The best routines are choreographed by one genius and performed by another... What is wrong, Kes?"

Lyta turned back to the window. She had been thinking about Amaraa, about the first time he'd walked the course with her. She realized she hadn't thought about him in nearly a cycle, since the last time she'd been to Junira Loresh. She felt, suddenly and unexpectedly, ashamed.

She shook her head and tried to shrug it off. "Nothing. Doesn't matter. You... said before that you competed. In what?" She struggled to regain her composure.

"No, enough about me, Tell what it is, Kes, please. I want to know."

She shook her head again, squeezing her eyes shut this time, and trying to figure out what it was about the Southerner that made her so uncomfortable. "You're just that sort of a guy. You never do anything half-way. Even when you're just talking, you're not just talking."

It was Alain's turn to shrug. "Life's too short, Kes. There is no time to waste on idle talk, or you let room for regret to settle in the spaces in between."

Lyta bit her lower lip, taking the conversation in a direction that had been on her mind lately. "So... you don't regret anything?"

Alain snorted and looked out his window for a moment. "Many, many things. But I believe I've learned from them. I think… I hope that I will not make the same mistakes again." He sighed heavily before continuing. "Love sometimes seems to teach us more about sadness than happiness. It makes you wonder about people who believe in the Gentle Prophet. Life does not seem so gentle."

Lyta shook her head again, dislodging one emotion and replacing it with another. "Look, if you don't mind my asking, why do you care so much? I mean, the first time we met, you thought I was... what? Hired at some cross-purpose? Bodyguarding someone so that I'd be an obstacle you had to deal with? Something like that? That didn't happen. And now we're working for you, we're gonna drop you off at this homestead, and then we're never gonna see each other again. So, why are you so interested?"

"You don't see it, do you?" Alain whispered bitterly. "I don't blame you. I blame him."

"Who?" Lyta replied, confused and angry with Vulpei for the emotions he managed to evoke with uncanny ease.

"Whoever it was who broke your heart. The man who failed to see this amazing woman who doesn't speak and yet has so much to say. The man who didn't find the way to hear you. I heard it on the dance floor the moment I tried to break your stride. The moment you turned that on me, I could see endless expression boiling below the surface: anger and fear and love and all that makes you who you are, but that you don't know how to share. You are fascinating to me, and I resent the man who made you feel like no one could see that in you." His tirade over, he crossed his arms, his cheeks red.

Lyta was silent a long time. She felt the tears in the corners of her eyes, and blinked them back, refusing to allow this man to see her cry. "Yeah. Well. He's dead now." She said it so quietly, it could barely be heard against the thrum of the tires.

Alain opened his mouth and closed it again. "I'm sorry, that was unfair. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that to you... I'm an idiot, non! I'm a selfish lonely bastard. Forget everything I said." He stood. “I'm sorry," he repeated one more time, impotently, before her red eyes. He staggered down a few benches, threw himself into the barnaby-hide, and hid.

Lyta watched him go. She wanted, desperately, to tell him it didn't matter, to say it was all right and brush it off. She couldn't. The words didn't come. With every moment that passed, every bump in the road seemed to move them farther apart. With an effort of will, she forced her eyes off him and back to the mesmeric cloud of smoke behind the Wagoneer, trying as hard as she could not to think about Ti.





Heavy Gear Roleplaying Game


 
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