Leap of Faith

By Silverhope

What is the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No smallest atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year. It grows--it must grow; nothing can prevent it.
     -- Mark Twain

All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.
     -- Henry Miller

4746 C.E.

Ariel Sherman took the bows that were her due, along with her brother and sister performers in the production show finale at the Land of Fantasy. This was the life she had been meant to lead! Her parents had never believed that a career as a performer would bring her any success, and now here she was, as the lead singer in an incredibly successful production of her own creation. Of course, she had taken a bizarre road to get to this place, being kidnapped and converted into a cyborg, then forced to work as a sex slave for over two years. But, with the greatest of luck, it had turned out in the end.

She smiled at that luck, which stood beside her holding her left hand. Adam Sandhara, her lifemate and father of their beautiful child, had found a way to free her and all the other cyborgs of the old Land of Fantasy pleasure house; with her, he had captured and neutralized its owner, Cheryl Mackerson. They had dealt a most efficient and thorough justice to her, and taken all her property for their own as compensation, sharing it in part with the other cyborgs. In the process, Adam had accidentally been converted himself, but he had no regrets, and enjoyed the prospect of an almost endless life of love with the woman who had inspired him to such heroics. Their daughter, Zana, was a cyborg as well, with the same golden integument as her parents, but looked to be a happy and joyful child, with no lack of love from mother, father, and over 400 aunts and uncles.

Most of those friends joined her and Adam now in their bows. Then the usual end-of-performance ritual began; most of the cast began streaming off the stage once the curtains had closed for the final time, happily chattering between each other, excited as always by their success. Powerful hydraulics lowered to the floor the four tall candelabra and matching chandeliers that carried several dozen naked cyborgs, men and women. As each dismounted from their pedestals, also talking animatedly, they reached inside the framework and pulled out hidden capes that allowed them to conceal themselves as they walked about. It was more a courtesy to the non-cyborg employees of the show, as most of the 'borgs were quite comfortable with full nudity after so long as sexual artists in the old pleasure-house days.

Heavy clicks and snaps came from the overhead stage lighting and its backstage circuitry as it was shut down for the night, replaced by normal hall lighting. Ariel considered those lights, not for the first time, as the miracle of hard work and stagecraft they were. It had taken two months of experimentation to work out how to light the stage without blinding the audience; some two hundred gold and silver bodies threw back a lot of reflected light. At last, the lighting crew had hit on a scheme of focusing the lights mainly on the set instead of the cast; their bodies would amplify the light enough in most cases to reduce the need for constant key lights, and spotlights on the stars and leads could be diminished in intensity as well. All that hard work, combined with skillful application of stage makeup by the performers, helped to produce a literally dazzling show that was still mostly selling out after over two years.

As for Ariel and Adam, they called out their usual congratulations on a show well done, then stood waiting for the two costume dressers Ariel needed to manage the huge triple four-meter train of her blue and silver lamé finale costume. Adam shook his head with a grin as they looked into the wings for the missing women, and said, "They must have taken a long coffee break. You'd think they'd know the timing of the show by now."

"They'll show up, darling," Ariel laughed, "they always do. At least they'd better; otherwise, I won't be able to move out of here without taking these off and leaving them. They'd get snagged all to hell on the walls of the hallways, never mind the wrinkling and whatever."

"Women never really wore something this big in real life, did they? Four meters is a lot of material."

"No, not every day; but special occasions like weddings of state or between wealthy families called for such huge skirts for years; there was a girl that married a crown prince of old Britain back in the 1980s, whose wedding-gown train was ten or fifteen meters long. And some dresses worn more often were just about as unwieldy. Those were all made some 3,000 years ago, for royal and noble ladies. And, as far as I can tell, it was as much a way for the men to keep the women in line as a fashion statement."

"How so?"

"Simple; if you couldn't move around easily in the skirts, you couldn't get away from your husband."

Adam chuckled at that, collecting a pair of blank stares from the human attendants, who had finally arrived. As they carefully picked up Ariel's trains by hidden loops on the underside of the bottom layer, he said, "Well, no matter what the reason in the past, I think you look beautiful in this...even if you can only walk straight down the stairs of the set without helpers."

"I thank you, my lord," Ariel grinned, finally able to begin the current walk to their shared dressing room, "but I suspect your opinion's a little biased. You love me in whatever I'm wearing. Where it counts with this is the audience."

"You never have to worry about the audience, lady," the older of the dressers said from behind her. "I've never seen an audience who wasn't enchanted with you or your costumes, especially this one...even if it is kind of awkward."

"That's only truth, lady," her apprentice said. "I was peeking out from the wings a little after you entered, and there was a woman about my age down in the front row, long blonde hair, just staring at you. It looked as if she was lost in a rapture or something."

"Hopefully she paid attention to the singing, too!" Ariel laughed.

They arrived at the dressing room a minute later -- actually a comfortable apartment with storage for the stars' costumes and goods, as well as a sitting room and two sleeping areas for those times that Adam and Ariel chose not to drive home; Zana would be with them in the other bedroom. Adam held open the door while the dressers carefully gathered the massive skirts and guided them through the jams; once he had closed the door again, the apprentice undid the blue-and-silver butterfly bow sash, while the senior attendant gathered the trains up and hung them on a special rack. The lamé ball skirt was next on the rack, followed by its supporting crinoline frame. With the ease of over two years' practice, they were done in ten minutes, and bade the stars good night as they wheeled the costume off to check for damage to its jeweled embroidery and any other needed repairs. They would return in the morning for the separate bodice and turban; the lord and lady usually wanted some privacy after a show, to -- and the dresser grinned as her eyes fell across the large, comfortable bed -- relax and unwind a little.

Once the dressers were gone, Adam locked the door and snapped on the privacy indicator that would ward off visitors. Turning around with a smile, he saw Ariel smiling back at him as she began unpinning her turban, with the same emotional note sparkling in her eyes. But she said, "You know that we have a late dinner date with Vanis Trheakna, darling."

"When it comes to you, darling," Adam said, coming closer and grinning into her gold-coin eyes, "advertising executives can wait. Seeing you in theatre makeup like this is always an inspiration." He bent down, just a little, and began kissing her ruby-tinted lips, far more heavily made up than she normally wore day-to-day, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.

"Mmmmm," she murmured, and ceased fiddling with the turban that concealed her hair. She slid tighter into him, her rose-gold nipples perking beneath the stiff, jewel-encrusted satin of the bodice she still wore, and returned his kiss with unfeigned passion. Then she grinned knowingly at him. "It doesn't take theatre makeup to inspire you, darling; and I already know what's on your thoughts."

He slid down to her golden throat and planted another kiss there, usually guaranteed to carry her in the direction he wanted. "In that case...since we seem to share the same thought...you know where it should lead to."

Ariel moaned huskily; she could not help it, he'd known which buttons to push for five years now, and they were usually effective. But, with a wistful smile, she kissed him on the cheek and said, "And I'm willing to follow you there, lover...unless we have an appointment."

"Can't convince you, eh?" He did not quite give up yet, massaging her back as he continued nuzzling her, and gradually working around to her front.

"Oh, you can convince me of just about anything.... Mmmm, especially when you do that.... But duties...are.... Are.... Oh, hell; Vanis can wait ten minutes," she finished in a lustful groan. And she began fumbling with Adam's belt, discipline laid aside for the moment.

Being cyborgs had some advantages in the lovemaking department; when they wanted a fast few minutes of passion, they could heat each other up with almost no foreplay. Of course, being insanely in love with each other helped as well.... Within the ten minutes Ariel allowed, they had satisfied their hunger for each other not just once, but twice, though Adam had been dry the second time. Ariel sighed within her electronic thoughts; she always hoped to carry another child for him, as many as she could bear, and Zana had stopped nursing power from her golden breasts months ago. But the first time had been fertile, and there was always hope from that, as well as the promise of later.... They stole a few more minutes snuggling each other in the bed, with dreamy looks in their eyes, and then she called them back to duty with a kiss and a whisper of, "More later, darling." Adam grinned and nodded, and pushed himself up to follow her back to the dressing area.

There were other advantages to being a cyborg, Ariel thought: being able to move quickly and precisely when desired. The pair carefully folded and stored the remainder of their stripped costumes with a speed that would astound organic people, while still taking care with the costly fabrics and synth-jeweled embroideries, and reclothed themselves in normal evening garb with the same amazing speed. Adam was in a silk shirt of peacock blue with full sleeves, accessorized with a white satin cravat and black pants of thermo-reactive leather. He could feel the leather contract about his legs and seal to his biometallic frame as he reached for his evening jacket of black silk, piped in white. He had taken a moment to fit his face into the desktop steam-purge makeup remover, a device one of their fellows in the Cyborg Condominiatum had developed for all of the actors; it dissolved the heavy theatrical paints in seconds under a blast of hot steam, something most organic lifeforms would not be able to bear without terrible, blistering burns. For the cyborgs, it left them freshly scrubbed and ready for action, so Adam watched as Ariel quickly finished her own toilette, idly combing out his emerald green goatee and crimbeul.

Ariel had laid out her own gown before the show, one of her signature mermaid-skirted dresses, and so was also able to change quickly. This one was of ruby satin with wide straps across her shoulders, edged in gold, while the fishtail flounce was made of pleated moiré satin in a hunter green color. Both the bodice and back were cut to plunge, the front to just inside her golden cleavage, while the rear left her back exposed down to its small. Red high-heel pumps covered her feet. She quickly wrapped a shoulder-collar necklace of diamonds and rubies in platinum about her throat, Adam doing up the several catches for her, and spurned other jewelry beyond her wedding and engagement rings. Checking her long clutch purse of red leather for her cosmetics and other things, she snatched up her evening gloves -- one of scarlet satin, the other of hunter green -- let Adam throw a sweeping evening cloak of emerald satin and a rich sable collar around her shoulders, and followed him out the door.

"Aren't you going to do your face?" Adam said as they trotted toward the stage entrance.

"I can do that in the floater," she answered, reaching for the gold hairpins in her braided sapphire tresses. "Hair, too; I'll just brush it out loose. I'll call the restaurant, and have them tell Vanis we'll be a little late."

"Not if I can make up time on the road."

"Don't get a speeding ticket, darling, or we'll really be late -- and especially you, as in the Late Adam Sandhara."

"Promises, promises."

They broke out of the stage entrance and started toward the parking slot where their personal floatcar was kept, when they saw a figure straighten up from where it had been leaning against the wall and come toward them. The person passed through a flood of light, but their augmented eyes could pick out without the lamp's aid that it was a young woman who approached them. She was well over medium height, just within the range of what people would call "willowy," with loose blonde hair slightly longer than shoulder length, and green eyes; she was dressed in a matte black jersey column and black pumps, her only jewelry a pair of diamond studs in her ears. Adam and Ariel grinned at each other, preparing to listen to her gush.

Indeed, her opening did not sound hopeful. "Hello, Lord Sandhara, Lady Sherman. My name is Dara Furtano, and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your show tonight."

"We thank you very much," Ariel said with a polite smile. "We do aim to make the audience happy, every show."

"That you definitely do, lady. I was right there in front, watching every move you made, along with the lord and your friends."

The centicredit-piece dropped, and Adam said, "Ah! We were kind of busy to notice you, but I think Ariel's dressers did; they mentioned someone watching us with rapt fascination."

The girl ducked her head in pleased embarrassment, glad in part to have been noticed. "It was probably me, and I hope that doesn't make you uncomfortable. Well, I can see you're trying to get somewhere, so I'll speak quickly; I wanted to schedule an appointment with you to talk about something you might be able to help me with."

The cyborgs glanced at each other in mild surprise, and Adam said, "What might that be?"

"If you don't mind, I'd prefer to elaborate then. Would it be possible to meet with you in a day or two?"

"There's usually no problem in seeing us. Just call Ariel's office on Monday, and her assistant will coordinate with mine on the scheduling."

"Thank you," Dara said with a smile and bow. "And now, I'll get out of your hair. Good night, and I hope to see you soon."

"Good evening," both of the cyborgs said, and they watched the young woman walk off to a floatcar on the other side of the parking lot. As they resumed their own walk, Adam murmured, "What do you thank that's all about?"

"I don't know," Ariel said, "but it seems safe enough."

"Yeah, she seems safe to me, too; which makes me wonder all the more what this is about. Anyone with normal business to transact would know enough to just call the office during working hours and make an appointment."

"Well, there's one way to find out; watch your appointment padd." She laid her hand on the lockplate of the floater's door and slid inside, making sure she pulled in the train of her skirt and the flowing sweep of her cloak. Buckling herself in, she snapped open her clutch and pulled out an eyeshadow compact. "Drive smooth, darling, unless you want me to look like a blotchy raccoon."

"I think we can arrange it," Adam laughed. He keyed in the ignition codes and waited for the vehicle's antigravs to stabilize, then pulled out. However, as they approached the guardhouse, he glanced to his left and saw that Ariel was staring fixedly ahead, seemingly lost to everything. Touching her shoulder, he said, "Ari, what's up?"

"Hmmm?" she said with a little start, turning to look at him.

"You seemed lost to the world there." He paused to say goodnight to the gate guard, pulled into traffic, and added, "For someone who wants to make up their face in a hurry, you were awful still; have something on your mind yet about that girl?" "Oh.... I just don't know...but I have this weird feeling that...though she does seem a safe person...that she's going to be involved with some event in our lives.... If I weren't a 'borg, I'd call it an Esper flash."

"You're like me, and keep forgetting or ignoring; the definition of 'borg means you have organic parts. And, as I recall humanoid physiology, the part of the brain where psi is usually located is well in the parts that aren't converted by the nanites."

She drew a deep breath as she glanced back at Adam. "I don't know if that makes me happy."

"That you might have a psi center?"

"No.... That I might be having precognitive flashes about this Dara Furtano."

Vanis Trheakna was a Tyrellian, light blue of skin from the chemicals inherent in his planet's biosphere, but otherwise quite humanoid. Head of one of the most successful advertising agencies in the Star Republic, he never took a client that he did not believe in. Twelve years before, he had believed in, and been hired by, Adam Sandhara to handle the account of Micronan, his own micro-cybernetics company. Adam was considered an oddity on pleasure-driven Videra, since his business had nothing to do with tourism. Trheakna, however, had examined his first designs, and believed that the young man had a chance in the industry, and designed ad campaigns around the quality of Adam's creations. Those campaigns, combined with the product's excellence, drove Micronan to nearly the top of the industry in only three years. So, when the Land of Fantasy show had started advertising, Adam had recommended Trheakna to Ariel, the president of the Condominiatum; and Trheakna had believed in them....

Between the efficiencies of Ariel's time management and Adam's driving, the Sandharas were technically only five minutes late for their appointment with him. And Ariel had finally shaken off her funk, at least enough to dip into her cosmetics and do her face with her usual evening drama and flair, so she was prepared to meet with Trheakna. However, it took another few minutes for them to work through the restaurant to the private balcony they had engaged for the meeting; inevitably, someone had noticed them on entering the dining room, and the whole place had quickly risen in an ovation. Grinning, the cyborgs indulged them with bows and waves, Adam smiling at Ariel as he saw how much she enjoyed the attention. Finally extricating them from the crowd, the maître d' and one of his waiters led the way to the stairs and up to the second floor's sequestered balconies, where Vanis Trheakna waited. When the waiter had finally closed the doors, Vanis said with a smile, "You two definitely need to start wearing disguises in public. Of course, Lady Ariel did before, but now the effect is quadrupled."

"Thanks in no small part to you, Vanis," Ariel said to their friend with a laugh as the waiter helped her remove her cape. She came over and hugged him in greeting. "How's life with you, lord?"

"Much richer than before I started handling both your companies' accounts, lady. But, in more substantive and meaningful ways, quite well indeed. And you look as well as ever. How is Zana?"

"Zana's doing well, too. Of course, she's finding ways to drive us to distraction, as any two year old will."

"It doesn't matter what the species, eh? Come, sit down and we will order, so this good woman back here doesn't have to keep waiting for us." And he held out a chair for Ariel to take.

The three considered their orders quickly; then, once the waiter had left, Trheakna folded his hands under his chin and said, "And so; you're planning to revamp the show?"

"Mmhmm," Ariel said as she unsnapped the catch on her purse. "We're still incredibly popular, but there has been a slight falling off over the past few months. And it's always more interesting to the performer to take on new roles every few years anyway, so we're due for a change. I've been working with our scriptwriters for three months or so already, and we've started building sets on the construction stage; the dip in audience just gives us extra reason to proceed."

"It's not a seasonal decline? Things will pick back up in a few months, when people start going on vacation again?"

"You've lived her longer than I have, you know seasonal movements have never applied on Videra. The place is always crowded with visitors."

"So you're not simply adding or changing songs and sketches, as you've done periodically in the past."

"Nope; a total revamp. We could probably go another year, actually; but, if the attendance trend is any indication, we'd be limping by the end of that time."

"Never good for a reputation, especially in entertainment.... And so I assume you wish me to handle the public relations again, correct?"

"And who else would we choose?" Adam grinned.

"You could probably find a few names in the business directories," Trheakna said blandly, then grinned. "Very well, then; consider the account taken. My office will send the contracts to your computers by the end of the week. Code-sign them and bop them back, and we'll be in business. Of course, we'll need a few things to work with, such as production information, graphics of the sets, costumes, and so on."

"Production information is here," and Adam handed Trheakna a data cube from his jacket pocket. "As for anything else you need, we'll send it along as it gets created."

"Very good. I'll pass it on to my new intern in the morning."

Ariel finished fitting a long green cigarette in a three-times-longer gold and ruby holder, and raised it to her lips. "Oh; you have a new intern now?" She did not worry about the person's quality; Vanis hired none but the best.

"Yes," Trheakna nodded. "She just arrived on planet a few days ago; in fact, I gave her my house pass to see your show tonight as a welcome-to-Videra gift. Her name is Dara Furtano, so you'll know-- Ariel, are you alright??"

He had reason to ask. The cyborgs did not need much intake of air, but they did require some "lung capacity" to inspire oxygen for their biological processes and senses of taste and smell. Ariel had been drawing on her cigarette as Adam was lighting its contents for her. Now she choked on the smoke and coughed explosively for the first time in five years, caught in surprise as the name sunk in. Adam pounded her on the back as he raised an eyebrow at the Tyrellian, though she recovered quickly; she finally fastened a stare on Trheakna and croaked, "You said Dara Furtano?"

Trheakna stared back, completely nonplussed. "Yes, that was the name. Is there a problem?"

"No--" She cleared her throat one more time before going on, "No, not a problem. It's just that we met her as we were coming out of the theatre tonight. She was waiting at the stage door."

"Oh, I see! I hope she didn't make a pest of herself."

"Not at all," Adam said, "in fact, she was quite polite and respectful. The coincidence just took us by surprise...especially Ariel!"

"Understandable on that. I suppose I should warn you, then, that she's going to be working closely with you on the project...under my supervision, of course. But if you wish, or if she becomes a nuisance or a danger, I can replace her with someone else."

The Sandharas glanced at each other, then Adam shook her head. "That shouldn't be necessary; she didn't seem like a potentially homicidal maniac."

"Of course," Ariel said, finally picking up her cigarette again, "how many celebrities have said that in the past, and wound up in the hospital...or the morgue?"

"A little more difficult with us than with other people." Adam picked up a knife and tapped the back of his wrist; a soft chime could be heard. "As long as nobody pulls a disruptor pistol on us, we're pretty safe."

Trheakna shrugged with a smile. "As you wish, then. Now, where's that waiter with the drinks?"

Ariel and Adam coasted into the garage of what their cyborg friends insisted on calling Sherman Mansion a few hours later, well pleased with the night. Locking down the doors for the night, they went up the stairs into the front rooms arm in arm, and found there a glittering woman of silver reading a book beneath a table lamp, with a low-burning fire on the hearth. "Hey, Elanor," Ariel said softly.

"Hi, boss," Elanor Partalan grinned as she looked up, closing her book. She did not, of course, bother marking the place; as a cyborg, she had the ability to recall exactly where she had been in the volume.

"How was the night?"

"Peaceful enough...or, should I say, no crazier than any other night putting a two-year-old to bed, but especially this one." She grinned again, with the knowledge of an experienced childcare worker, which was what she had been under another name before taking a vacation on Videra eight years ago. Freed along with the other cyborgs, she had decided that she had no taste for show business, and that it would be easier to begin again on Videra than try to rebuild her old life. She had built a large and satisfied client base in nearly three years, including the Sandharas. Indeed, Ariel and Adam had found that only a cyborg or android babysitter could keep up with an almost tireless, and certainly restlessly curious, cyborg child.

Adam sighed at Elanor's comment. "Another aspect of raising a 'borg child. Not only more intelligence, but also the ability to act on it with fewer stutters. It looks like Ari and I'll be writing the first book on 'borg child rearing."

"Worse things have happened, Adam. And all that ability now bodes well for her future. Zana will be one of the brightest children and students in the Republic, wait and see; and she's already one of the most beautiful. Well, I'd better leave now; Rik will be waiting for me at home."

Adam and Ariel smiled; Elanor had fallen in love with Rik, another fellow cyborg, a year ago, and they now shared living arrangements and beds. At the rate things were going, there might be another cyborg child before another year was out. "Give him our greetings, Eli," Ariel said, "and we'll transfer to your bill in the morning. Good night." She embraced Elanor, and walked up the stairs to Zana's room as Adam let the woman out.

Adam found her there after he had locked up, looking in on their daughter with a mother's loving smile. The same smile spread across his face as he joined her, laying an arm on her shoulders. Zana, oblivious to the admiration of her parents, lay curled up in sleep cycle beneath the duvet and blanket, her cheek and neck and exposed arm shining goldenly in the half-light, a child's nightgown of pink satin covering her otherwise. Thick gold-blonde hair, apparently its natural color, spilled over her pillow and was trapped under her head; like her mother's, it would comb out readily in the morning. At peace in her sleep, she gave no hint of the frenetic bundle of activity she could be when awake, just like any child of two. He felt Ariel drop her head on his arm, and cover his golden hand with her own on the end of a sigh. "A centicredit for your thoughts," he said softly, though he was well able to guess them.

"Just marveling," she replied. "You do throw beautiful children."

"Just one so far," he chuckled, "and I had some help on the genetic end.... I still say she takes after you more than me."

"I think she's turning more toward her Grandmother Avorsen; Martina has some old 'grams of her."

"I know one thing that makes her even prettier right now."

"What's that?"

Adam let his knees buckle dramatically. "She's asleep," he groaned in a fruity parody of exhaustion, and laid his head dramatically on her shoulder.

Ariel snorted and gave him a look from laughing eyes. "Men! No endurance for taking care of the kids. From the sound of things, poor baby, you're too tired to do anything but go to bed."

Adam quickly perked up. "Just what did you have in mind?"

Chuckling quietly, she grabbed his hand and led him out. Tightening their grip on each other, they trotted down the halls to their own wing, closing the door tightly behind them.

Their lovemaking was as long, creative and volcanic as always, lasting over an hour of pleasurable give and take, and both got their turns on top and below, as the spirit moved them. When they were done, Adam relaxed and set his mind to sleep, falling as unconscious as Zana while his internal systems recharged and performed other needed maintenance. Ariel, however, found herself reluctant to shut down for the night. She lay cradled in Adam's arms, her gold-coin eyes wide open and gleaming in the half-light. Her thoughts had turned again to the puzzling feeling connected with Dara Furtano, which she was unable to completely shake. Try as she might to discard the intuition, it continued softly gnawing at her. It didn't feel as if it would be catastrophic or dangerous; but somehow, it would be world-changing -- not just for herself and her loved ones, but for all of the Cyborg Condominiatum.

She had occasionally had flashes of almost psychic intuition in the years before her conversion, and she had usually found them sound enough. This one carried the same sense of rightness about it. But she had no more data to work with yet than the feeling itself, and it was frustrating to wait.... Finally reaching her threshold of self-disgust for worrying a problem, she set her sleep-timer and let herself shut down, resolving to hold herself open to anything that would help resolve her hunch into clarity.

The next day was Saturday under the Standard Timing Method, and Adam and Ariel spent most of it with Zana, tearing about her favorite paths and play areas in Vidran's central park until they must return to the Land of Fantasy to prepare for that night's show. Saturday was the one night that Zana was allowed to accompany them to the theatre; she even joined in the finale with her parents, marching firmly down the stairs between them while she held their hands, in a smaller copy of her mother's gown. As ever, the crowd roared its delight when Adam hoisted Zana into his arms and she joined in the company's bows; Zana, after all, was almost as well known as her parents.

Sunday was a full rest day. Monday was the start of the new work week, and Zana accompanied her mother to her offices in the theatre; there, she played in a care group with the children of the organic workers under Elanor Partalan's watchful eye, and was available when Ariel had a break in her schedule. Several chances came each day, including at lunch, and both mother and daughter were happy with the passage of the time.

Coming back from one of those sessions, shortly before time to close the office for the day, Ariel checked her schedule and found a notation for Wednesday: "Dara Furtano, here, 1030." She perked her brows slightly and leaned back in her reclining chair, but was not otherwise surprised. They had, after all, invited the young woman to make an appointment, and she had said that she would. And, of course, there was the need to meet to discuss the PR account. More than likely, whatever the woman planned on requesting would be innocent enough, and well within their power to help her with if nothing else.

But, if that was the case, why did she still have this feeling...? Ariel sighed; if it were up to her, she'd cancel a few appointments and call the woman in now, just to end the frustrated speculation. If Adam was to attend, however, they had to stick to this schedule; it was the only way to make her work world mesh with his infinitely more involved agenda. So, as much as it made her grind the perfect wedges of her teeth, she willed herself to wait.

At last, the appointment time arrived. Adam had come in ten minutes before, and was chatting with Ariel when her secretary buzzed through on the commline. She tapped back an acknowledgement; a few seconds later, as they stood, the door slid open to reveal Dara Furtano. She was, logically, dressed for business this morning; a blouse of light blue silk and jersey pants of a darker blue, with an executive's blazer jacket of deep maroon over the top. Her feet were shod in black leather flats. Her makeup reflected the color scheme in a quiet, daytime palette; again, two small diamond studs in each ear were her only jewelry. They exchanged bows as she came in, and she said, "Good morning, lord and lady. It's good to see you again."

"The same here," Adam said, while Ariel confined herself to a polite smile. "Have a seat, please. Would you care for any refreshment?"

"No, thank you, lord."

"Well, then...." The Sandharas settled back into their seats, and Adam nodded to Ariel; this was principally her domain.

Ariel steepled her fingers before her as she gazed briefly at the woman, finally saying, "I'm...not sure what to ask you here, mistress. I've wondered for a good chunk of this week, ever since we had supper with your employer on the same night we met you. Are you here for Trheakna Associates, or for yourself?"

"Both, with your permission," Furtano said, her smile now tinged with a slight nervousness. "I did come to ask that personal request of mine, but I'm also here to talk about your coming ad campaign. I'll start with that, if I may." She opened the portfolio she was carrying, and extracted a sheaf of notes and a data cube. "Your production information gave us a starting place; people always want to know who is the star, director of production, set designer and so on for theatre productions. We can include some of this in network advertising and posters, and much of it in the programs you give your audience. However, as you know, pictures of the performers, shots from the show and so on, are vital as well; people like to know what they're going to spend two or three hours of a night watching. I've drafted some preliminary sketches, based on what I've seen over the past week--"

Ariel could not help staring. "The past week??"

"Yes, lady; Master Trheakna loaned me his box pass for several more nights, so that I could take notes and sketches." Noting Ariel's apparent dismay, she added, "I promise you, Lady Sherman, I'm not some crazy maniac here to do insane things to you. I love the beauty you've created here along with your husband and friends, and I wouldn't mind visiting every night for a month. But I do know where reality lies, and I will not attack you in any way."

"Am I being that terrible?"

"Considering some of the history of entertainment, you're being rather sensible, and I'm not offended in the least. In addition, Master Trheakna called me into his office last week when he said I could keep his pass for some days more, and informed me, in no uncertain terms, of what he would personally do if I somehow harmed some of his best friends on the planet."

"I thank you for your honesty," Ariel said with a wry smile. "But I think I owe you an apology for my overreaction...and for Vanis hauling you in on the carpet. We mentioned your talk with us, as you probably know from him; he must have run away with it. I will admit that I've had this feeling ever since we met, about something that I just can't quantify. But we'll see if we can't do anything about that in our talks here. Go ahead with your presentation, and let's see what you have."

Dara smiled and launched into her work, showing several beginning concepts based on the current show; they could be adjusted for content as more was finalized in the new production. At the end of a half-hour, both Ariel and Adam were nodding their heads; this woman showed promise for Trheakna Associates. As the woman locked up her sketches, both of the Sandharas were nodding and smiling, and Ariel said, "Several of your approaches look very promising to me. Keep working on them; I think you have some good ideas here."

"Thank you, Lady Ariel," Dara said, flushing with pleasure.

"And now, with the business out of the way, let's get to the personal aspect of your visit. What was it that you'd like us to do for you?"

Furtano glanced away for a second as she took a breath, clearly steeling herself for the plunge. Finally: "I should tell you, lady, that I've been fascinated by the story of your conversion from human to cyborg...yours, Lord Adam's, and your friends in the old pleasure house. I suppose that may tend to discredit my earlier statements about not being an obsessed fan, but that's as it may be. It all started from your early days as a celebrity. I suppose those weren't pleasant times for you in many ways, but it's hard to keep that in mind. I still have a collection of holozine and news articles about you that I've kept up to date.

"When you revealed that you and yours were cyborgs, and what Cheryl Mackerson forced most of you to do, it became even more fascinating to me. No matter how beautiful you were, I could understand the pain you must have gone through at being deprived of your life against your will. But then I began considering all the advantages of your cyborg life as well, at least from what I could find in the news and what journal articles you've allowed to be published, and it was incredibly intriguing. Though I can't advocate the way by which you became a 'borg, I can see the distinct possibilities such a life offers a person."

Adam's eyes darkened in a blank golden face as he listened; Ariel, however, held up a hand and said, "Those advantages are relative, in my personal opinion. But what does this have to do with your request?"

"It's the foundation for it, ma'am. I wish to become one of you; I want to be transformed into a 'borg."

Ariel's mouth dropped open in amazement for a second. Then she shook her head and said, "No."

"But lady, if you'll let me give my reasons and thoughts--"

"No! I promised myself long ago that I would never make a 'borg like Cheryl did. I will not condemn another person to become a lifeform that's nine-tenths cybernetic and sets them apart from their fellows."

"Even if it's of their own desire and request?" Dara asked quietly.

"Not even then. And my apologies, Mistress Dara, if I hurt you with my frankness, but I have to believe that, by requesting this, you may be deluded somehow. I won't consent to this at any time. In any case, the Condominiatum is fighting an ongoing battle with the federal government to keep the technology from them, including constant guards that have stopped at least two physical break-in attempts by certified spukniks. I won't give them reason, if I can help it, to claim that we're talking out of both sides of our mouth.

"I won't hold this against you in terms of your job for us, mistress, and I won't tell Vanis about it; your personal life and desires are none of his business. But please don't bother asking this again; it'll just bring turmoil into our working relationship."

"I see...." Dana murmured with cast-down eyes. Then she recovered quickly and looked steadily into Ariel's set golden face. "I have to be frank, too, Lady Ariel; I think you're sadly mistaken in your belief about my craziness in my desire. And I can't promise that I won't ask you again one day. For now, though, I'll respect your wishes and leave this alone, at least when I'm working on your account.

"As part of that work, I'd like to request permission to visit the theatre as needed to gather material for building the campaign, such as shooting 'grams of the work in progress. Can you arrange for an appropriate pass for me? Or would you rather that I not record anything for now?"

Ariel did not immediately reply, and Adam glanced at her in mild curiosity before turning to Furtano. "I don't think there's an objection to your recording the work for the campaign, as long as the usual agreements of confidentiality are observed. We'll arrange for a pass for you, and have it sent over to your office this afternoon." He ignored the stare he was collecting from his lifemate. "As for the other matter, madam, it would be best if you left that alone completely."

Dara's only reply was to smile slightly and stand with an extended hand. "Thanks for your time. I'll contact you later when I have something to show you."

Once she was gone, Ariel turned and snapped, "I'm not sure I'm happy with you giving her an all-access pass, lover."

Adam shrugged. "If we leave her on the account, she has the right...indeed, the need, as she said. And you didn't seem exactly eager to remove her from the account. I guess from that fact that your fears and/or unquiet feelings about Mistress Furtano and her Destiny of Great Importance have been resolved."

She screwed her face up. "No, they haven't. If anything, they've gotten stronger...."

Ariel did not forget about Dara Furtano and her amazing request. However, the press of administering the Condominiatum's business affairs and creating a new revue for the theatre succeeded in pushing her concerns mostly to the back of her mind. They only surfaced when the women ran into each other in the various departments of the theatre, which was unavoidable; Ariel would, for instance, walk into the costume department, and find Dara watching in admiration as the seamstresses worked on new costumes, shooting the occasional hologram and retiring to a laptop workstation in a quiet corner to transfer it to her office workspace. Or they would encounter each other as Dara was leading a holovid cinematographer to the construction stage. This stage was where sets were built for the show; it was separated from the production stage by a folding wall, which allowed large sections to be carted between the two on antigrav pallets. Dara would film the progress as they built, concluding with the finished set; in the end, after editing, all of this work would go into a virt-vid presentation for sale at the theatre.

More and more progress was made as the time stretched into three months since Dara first met with the cyborgs. Ariel gradually relaxed around her, though she never forgot the presentiment she still had. Therefore, when they ran into each other again just inside the wings on the construction stage one Thursday afternoon, she was able to speak to Dara in relative comfort. Unlike most professional women of the Republic (including Dara), who wore business suits at work, the performer's flair that Ariel had developed said that a long daygown with full sleeves and tulip cuffs was the proper garb for the business day. She said, "Hello for the day, mistress! It seems like you're never gone from here; maybe I should offer you an apartment in the building."

"I may take you up on that soon," Dara said with a smile, gripping Ariel's forearm beneath the sleeve of her gown. "You're figuring that dress rehearsals will begin in a month; that's when I really go to work, as quickly as possible. All this early work has been to iron out the final concepts and pin down what graphics we want where; the actual stage shots can be taken during the rehearsals. And, from what I've seen, they're going to be mindblowers. Your costume artists are fantastic, and these sets!"

"Haven't gotten jaded yet by nightly attendance, huh?"

"Not a bit, lady; it's still stunningly beautiful. It's hard to believe people are getting tired of the old show."

"Well, they are; the downward trend is still continuing, though it isn't accelerating, thank God. Economic times are good, and we don't have any competition on-planet, or in the sector, so it must simply be that most people interested have seen the old revue enough times. We'll need to launch the campaign as soon as possible, to catch people's interest and get them coming back."

"We'll see what we can do on that. Knowing you folks, the dress rehearsal will be letter perfect on the first run-through, so you could launch the ads anytime after you approve my last presentations, and premiere the show anytime after that."

"Oh, would that it were that simple. You're right that our memories would store a script or score and regurgitate it word for word. But a performance is more than just hitting your marks and reciting your lines; it takes the personal factor to give a performance soul and feeling. That's why we cyborgs can act; our personalities enable us to. If we were the soulless machines Cheryl always claimed we were, we wouldn't be able to give any life to a performance."

"I see," Dara nodded. "So you still need several run-throughs, just like a human cast, not for the technical quality of the personal performance, but to perfect the emotional aspect."

Ariel said, "Exactly. Remember, without the soul that an actor breathes into a performance, even 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears' is just a clump of words on a page. Remember, too, that each actor carries their own personal dynamic toward a character, that internal spin that makes the difference between, say, Olivier in Hamlet and a secondary-school drama student. Once again, because we have personalities, we're able to inject that dynamic into our work."

"Excuse us, ladies," a voice said from deeper offstage; they turned to see a cyborg stagehand pushing a stack of wall flats on an antigrav pallet. "We need to get these walls into storage on the production side."

"Right, Jock," Ariel called back; "please excuse us." They stepped aside to watch Jock guide the pallet through the door to the production stage.

"Actually, lady," Dara said, "I'd better get back to work; my break's done, and I see my cameraman waiting for me."

Ariel smiled and said, "Go ahead; I'm just taking a pause myself between appointments." She watched Furtano walk off toward her cameraman, who was waiting at stage center, then turned her attention to the disassembly of the set, drifting onto the open platform herself.

Theatre was an art that hung on to traditions, even ones that had been around for thousands of years. The chief electrician and light technician of a theatre, for instance, was still called a gaffer. And the Land of Fantasy's gaffer, Dav Olson, was a busy person indeed right now. Not only was it the human's responsibility to maintain the complex rack of overhead stage lighting currently in use in the old revue, but he must oversee construction of the rack layout for the new production.

The latter was what he was laboring on today; specifically, he was working with one of his crew to mount a 250-kilogram spotlight to one of the computer-controlled motors in the overhead network of supports. The whole arrangement was secured to a traveling pallet that, when it was time to shift to the production stage, would exchange positions with the old layout on an oval set of motorized rails. He had taken safety precautions, of course; after all, who wanted over two hundred kilos of klieg light falling on their head? The fixture was supported in an antigravity float strap; one or the other of the men routinely checked its power core to ensure it would not go dead and let the load fall. At the moment, it was floating on a short, lightweight tether to keep it from drifting off while the techs bolted its rotating bracket to the motor mount and locked in the drive; the other end of the tether was tied to the scaffold.

They had just dogged down the last bolt when Olson's digicomm buzzed. He tapped the button on his shoulder microphone; "Olson."

"It's Eric, boss," came the voice of his best boy, or chief assistant, over on the production stage catwalks. "This damned Model 60 over here just blew another set of bulbs when I ran the test cycle."

"Damn indeed," the gaffer muttered; those four Cenlume Model 60 gel floods had dropped five full bulb element packs a month from the time they were first installed, and were scheduled for replacement because of the cost. "Well, go get a bulb pack, then, and let me work in peace."

"That's the problem, boss; I'm in storage now, but I can't find the blasted things."

Jarlie, the helper on the other side of the bracket said, "I checked in the last shipment, Dav. There should still be a few full packs left."

"Go help him find them; if not, grab the fastest flitter in the garage and get your ass to the supply house."

"Right, boss." Jarlie clicked on his personal floatbelt and slipped over the catwalk rail.

"Did you catch that, Eric?" Olsen said to the microphone.

"Understood; I'll stay here. Out."

The gaffer tapped off and began hauling the new light in from where it had drifted; with the antigrav strap on it, one man could mount it almost as easily as two.

"Mommy!" came a familiar joyful squeal to Ariel's ears. She spun away from the disassembly of the "building" she had been watching, and saw a small golden tornado running toward her from the opposite wings, Elanor Partalan watching with a grin as she followed her charge onto the stage.

"Zana," Ariel grinned, even as she shook her head, "what are you doing here?"

"Haven' seen you, Mommy; you gone," Zana lisped, looking up into her face. "An' A'nt Elanor bring."

"Shelly said you were taking a break," Elanor explained, "and the computer traced your digicomm here. Spend some time with your daughter, and relax a little." And she started walking off with a wave.

"Well, I can't think of a better thing to do for about fifteen minutes," Ariel said with a smile, kneeling down to Zana's level. "So you missed Mommy?"

"Yeah; love you!"

"Oh, and I love you too, sweet one." She wrapped Zana in a tight hug to prove the point, closing her eyes. A second later, bright flashes popped up behind her lids, accompanied by several sharp crackles from overhead and a smell of burnt air. Someone yelled, "Look out!" as Ariel and Zana snapped their heads upward in the direction of the sound.

To Ariel, everything seemed to instantly drop into slow motion as she saw a quarter-ton of steel and electronics plummet toward her and Zana, not quite square on target, but close enough to not matter. Even as her cybernetic mind processed the information of what it was, she felt her thoughts seemingly shut down in astonishment. She sought the willpower to move, and felt herself locked in place by the shock of a chance of death, and a very messy one as well.

The next thing she knew, she was rolling on the floor, several meters away, part of a tangled ball of arms, legs and bodies, while particles of glass and sodium hyposenium lighting element and chunks of steel were banging down around them. A thunderstorm of pounding feet hurtled toward her as she pushed herself up, her head spinning slightly but quickly stabilizing. She heard Jock shout in the background, "Get up to the lighting catwalk; Dav's hurt!" Then, as the situation fell into place, and she saw people start reaching out to her to see if she was injured, she screamed out "Zana!" and spun frantically about to look for her daughter.

"Here she is!" Dara Furtano said from the floor, and Ariel spun to find the ad executive picking up both herself and Zana, just a few meters from Ariel. Zana looked too astonished to even cry, but the pupils of her golden eyes were huge and her lower lip was starting to tremble. Ariel fell to her knees and scooped Zana into a fierce hug: "Oh God! Are you alright, sweet one? Are you okay?" She felt Zana nodding her head into her shoulder even as the first sniffles began, and the next few minutes were spent in mother and daughter just holding each other and reassuring themselves of their safety.

Finally, when she felt Zana go limp in her arms from exhaustion, she turned to Jock and said, "Just what the hell happened here??"

"An accident up on the lighting catwalk, lady," Jock replied, his voice and knees still shaking. "It looks like Dav was hauling in a light on a floatstrap, and the charger port of the strap made contact with the walkway railing. It shorted out and discharged the strap's power core, and the light came down...thankfully, not on you! Are you okay?"

"We're fine, I guess; what about Dav?"

"He's over there," and the hand pointed deeper into the stage, where the body of the gaffer was laid out on a crate; the silvery house medtech was at work on him. "He took a nasty jolt from the discharge, and his heart stopped for a bit, but the tech did CPR on him. She's treating his burns now. It looks like just a dumb accident, ma'am; nobody's fault except chance and Murphy. Chance worked in your favor, though; if that ad lady hadn't been right there near you, that light would have ended up on your heads."

Ariel turned to Dara Furtano, who was nursing a bruised elbow with a rag someone had thrust at her. She shrugged and said, "It really was luck; I was looking up toward the lights when I saw the discharge blast. Then I saw you and your daughter below, and just leaped over and body-checked you. Believe me, I'm glad we all got out of that one!"

"None more than me, mistress. Not only did you save me, you saved Zana as well. Adam and I are in your debt, and we always honor our debts; is there anything that we can do for you?"

"Anyone would have done it, Lady Ariel; in fact, a few of your hands, including this fellow here, were trying to. I just happened to be there first."

"That's enough for me, Dara. What counts is that it worked. Name what you want; if it's in our power, we'll gladly give it to you."

"You're...you're really serious about this?"

"Of course! Adam would insist as well; will, I'm sure, when I tell him about this; and my planet always taught that life debts were serious things...." Then her voice faded as she realized just who she was talking to, until she whispered in horror, "No...oh, God, no!"

Dara slowly nodded, without a trace of a smile. "Yes, lady. If you're really serious about this, then you already know my request."

All Ariel could do for a few seconds was stare, amazed by what she perceived as sheer gall in leaning on the gratitude of the woman she had saved. Then she spun on her heels without a word and carried Zana off the stage.


Continued in Part 2....

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