* * *
Amelia Spindizzy came swooping down out of the sun like a suicidal angel, all rage and mirth. The rotor of her autogyro whined and snarled with the speed of her dive. Then she throttled up and the blades bit deep into the air and pulled her out, barely forty feet from the ground. Laughing, she lifted the nose of her bird to skim the top of one skywalk, banked left to dip under a second, and then right to hop-frog a third. Her machine shuddered and rattled as she bounced it off the compression effects of the air around the skyscrapers to steal that tiny morsel of extra lift, breaking every rule in the book and not giving a damn.
The red light on Radio 2 flashed angrily. One-handed, she yanked the jacks to her headset from Radio 3, the set connecting her to the referee, and plugged into her comptroller’s set. “Yah?”
The flat, emotionless, and eerily artificial voice of Naked Brain XB-29 cut through the static. “Amelia, what are you doing?”
“Just wanted to get your attention. I’m going to cut through the elbow between Ninetieth and Ninety-First Avenues. Plot me an Eszterhazy, will you?”
“Computing.” Almost as an afterthought, the Naked Brain said, “You realize this is extremely dangerous.”
“Nothing’s dangerous enough for me,” Amelia muttered, too quietly for the microphone to pick up. “Not by half.”
The sporting rag Obey the Brain! had termed her “half in love with easeful death,” but it was not easeful death that Amelia Spindizzy sought. It was the inevitable, difficult death of an impossible skill tenaciously mastered but necessarily insufficient to the challenge—a hard-fought battle for life, lost just as the hand reached for victory and closed around empty air. A mischance that conferred deniability, like a medal of honor, on her struggle for oblivion, as she twisted and fell in gloriously tragic heroism.
So far, she hadn’t achieved it.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love being alive (at least some of the time). She loved dominating the air currents in her great titanium whirligig. She loved especially the slow turning in an ever-widening gyre, scanning for the opposition with an exquisite patience only a sigh short of boredom, and then the thrill as she spotted him, a minuscule speck in an ocean of sky. Loved the way her body flushed with adrenalin as she drove her machine up into the sun, searching for that sweet blind spot where the prey, her machine, and that great atomic furnace were all in a line. Loved most of all the instant of stillness before she struck.
It felt like being born all over again.
For Amelia, the Game was more than a game, because necessarily there would come a time when the coordination, strength, and precision demanded by her fierce and fragile machine would prove to be more than she could provide, a day when all the sky would gather its powers to break her will and force her into the ultimate submission. It would happen. She had faith. Until then, though, she strove only to live at the outer edge of her skills, to fly and to play the Game as gloriously as any human could to the astonishment of the unfortunate earth-bound classes. And of the Naked Brains who could only float, ponderously, in their glass tanks, in their Zeppelins.
“You have my position?”
Cameras swiveled from the tops of nearby buildings, tracking her. “Yes.”
Now she’d achieved maximum height again.
“I’m going in.”
Straight for the alley-mouth she flew. Sitting upright in the thorax of her flying machine, rudder pedals at her feet, stick controls to the left and right, she let inertia push her back into the seat like a great hand. Eight-foot-long titanium blades extended in a circle, with her at the center like the heart of a flower. This was no easy machine to fly. It combined the delicacy of flight with the physical demands of operating a mechanical thresher.
“Pull level on my count. Three . . . Two . . . Now.”
It took all her strength to bully her machine properly while the g-forces tried to shove her away from the controls. She was flying straight and true toward Dempster Alley, a street that was only feet wider than the diameter of her autogyro’s blades, so fine a margin of error that she’d be docked a month’s pay if the Naked Brains saw what she was up to.
“Shift angle of blades on my mark and rudder on my second mark. Three . . . Two . . . Mark. And . . . Rudder.”
Tilted forty-five degrees, she roared down the alley, her prop wash rattling the windows and filling them with pale, astonished faces. At the intersection, she shifted pitch and kicked rudder, flipping her gyro over so that it canted forty-five degrees the other way (the engine coughed and almost stalled, then roared back to life again) and hammered down Bernoulli Lane (a sixty-degree turn here where the streets crossed at an odd angle) and so out onto Ninety-First. A perfect Eszterhazy! Five months ago, a hypercubed committee of half the Naked Brains in the metropolis had declared that such a maneuver couldn’t be done. But one brave pilot had proved otherwise in an aeroplane, and Amelia had determined she could do no less in a gyro.
“Bank left. Stabilize. Climb for height. Remove safeties from your bombs.”
Amelia Spindizzy obeyed and then, glancing backwards, forwards, and to both sides, saw a small cruciform mote ahead and below, flying low over the avenue. Grabbing her glasses, she scanned the wing insignia. She could barely believe her luck—it was the Big E himself! And she had a clear run at him.
The autogyro hit a patch of bumpy air, and Amelia snatched up the sticks to regain control. The motor changed pitch, the prop hummed, the rotor blades cut the air. Her machine was bucking now, veering into the scrap zone, and in danger of going out of control. She fought to get it back on an even keel, straightened it out, and swung into a tight arc.
Man, this was the life!
She wove and spun above the city streets as throngs of onlookers watched the warm-up hijinks from the tall buildings and curving skywalks. They shouted encouragement at her. “Don’t let ’er drop, Amelia!” “Take the bum down, Millie!” “Spin ’im around, Spindizzy!” Bloodthirsty bastards. Her public. Screaming bloody murder and perfectly capable of chucking a beer bottle at her if they thought she wasn’t performing up to par. Times like these she almost loved ’em.
She hated being called Millie, though.