Where my last story, A Plague Of Lucy, was inspired by the new generation of SFF writing, this story derives from something quite a bit older. For quite a while now I’ve been wanting to do something that draws, just a little, from classic SF writer Cordwainer Bird, and this seemed like an excellent chance. Bird came to SFF with a poetic sensibility which really stood out from his peers, which made his work feel like myth and folklore to me. It’s a shame he’s not a more well known name today, compared to some of his contemporaries, and while this yarn ended up going in its own direction, I’m happy I was able to carry at least a tiny bit of that forward.
Everyone knows the story of Laura Lazuli. She came to this country with nothing but her clothes, and by the end she took the world by storm. We know her as the Toe-Stepper or the Miracle Mechanic. Sometimes we call her the Dean, although she never accepted a position at any college. She taught for free, gave away her inventions, and danced as easily in the street as on the stage. Her example inspired a whole generation of girls, and she won the hearts of the nation.
The greatest and dearest of those hearts to her, so the story goes, was Dahlia Diamond, the love of her life. The official novel about their romance brought audiences in thirteen languages to tears. The unofficial novel, sold through less public channels, achieved legendary status for more licentious reasons. When the couple revealed that they were fans of both, it caused a sensation.
But for all the stories about her extraordinary life, there is one she never told to anyone. Dahlia herself denied knowledge of it, even testifying under the veraci-wire. She stated there was only one Laura who mattered to her, and she had no interest in any other. Laura kept her two lives strictly separate, that was enough.
This, then, is that story for those who wish to hear. It is not the story of Laura Lazuli that we know so well, but another woman bearing the same name. This is the story of a woman who changed, which happens to everyone who goes to the Flanner.
Tak-tak-tak went the sound of the stranger’s feet on the cobblestone avenue as they entered Halton Mills. It was an unusual sound, more like the tapping of a cane than the normal two-toned sound of a man’s boots or a woman’s heels. A fitting sound, since the stranger who came was strange indeed. A Papillon had come to town.
It stopped for a moment upon reaching the town square, and paused as it took stock of its surroundings. The town was picturesque, with colourful, stucco-faced apartment houses facing the central plaza. Wrought iron balconies dripping with roses and ivy. On the opposite side lay the modern auto-train station, providing a pleasing contrast in style. Broad avenues radiated outward; the spires of churches towered above the red clay rooftops.
Whether the beauty of the town impressed the Papillon is impossible to say. No one knows the mind of their kind. They are definitely not the same as humans, whatever their brightly-patterned robes cover. Like their namesakes the butterflies, they have something of the insect and something of the bird to them. And like butterflies, they are prone to appearing with out warning.
As such, no one was there to greet it. Nor would the gesture be welcome. That could be why they arrived early on the day of rest, when none of the townsmen would be working. The women, too, would be at home engaged in household duties or caring for husbands and fathers, as was the custom.
Tak-tak-tak. So it continued on, choosing one of the spokes leading from the square to follow on its own errand. The only other sounds were the breeze fluttering its cloak and the soft, distant murmur of families rising to face the day. Such idyllic stillness was precious, and of course it did not last for long.
Some early riser opened their shutters. Likely someone’s wife sneaking a break while working on the family breakfast, seeking a breath of cool, spring air. But the shutters slammed shut again as recognition sank in. For a quiet, provincial town like Halton Mills, there was no juicier gossip, no more urgent news, than this. Soon, the entire town was awake and beginning to line the streets, hoping for a look at the stranger.
As curious as they all were, the crowd was silent and gave the Papillon a wide berth. One of the greatest taboos, not only in the country of New Usono but around the world, was to interfere with a Papillon. To even touch one is to court disaster. The lesson of the Palace of Mirrors and the many lives lost there was not forgotten.
No one asked why it came. Everyone knew that there was only one reason a Papillon visits a town. The only question was, who would it take away? Five years ago, it was a young women who left. A baffling choice since she couldn’t have possessed any valuable skills. For another to come so soon, when they rarely appeared even once in a generation, was just as mysterious.
It was in this unguarded moment, while everyone wondered who would be next, that the unthinkable happened. Of course it was Laura Lazuli – not yet the Laura we know – who did the first shocking thing of her life. She strode up to that Papillon, right up the centre of the street in front of everyone, took it by the arms and screamed in its face.
“You! You took her!”
The townsfolk were silent. Laura may have been a problem child who resisted the good, normal ways a woman should act, but this was beyond comprehension. It was an outright criminal act, so unexpected, so alien to the norm that not a single person could react at first. Why, this girl could have doomed them all!
Laura did not care. She glared at the Papillon in her grasp with eyes ready to sacrifice a hundred towns. She did not even hear as a collective cry of horror finally rose from the crowd. She glared as if that alone would harm it, and gave the creature a hard shake. Rather she tried, for as frail as the Papillon’s arms felt through its robe, it didn’t move in the least. So she tried again to move it, this time with her voice and force of will alone.
“Take me to her,” she shouted, with as much force as she could muster. “I demand to see Hazel!”
This, now, had meaning to her audience. The woman who left with the other Papillon – it could have been the same, who can say -was Hazel Heliotrope, Laura’s best friend. The two were inseparable for all their lives. One of the great tragedies of that day was that she never spared a glance or a single word to either or her own family or to Laura. Some said that was the moment when her delinquency began; a few of the less prudent gossips claimed there was more between them. But decent folk never listen to such rumours.
Again Laura shouted, her voice becoming desperate and shrill. “I must see Hazel! I must! Take me to her, I’ll do anything!”
Through all this the Papillon gave no sign it even noticed Laura, let alone objected to the treatment. It stood there, impassive, through the whole of her outburst until Laura finally fell into tears. It was then that it detached itself from her grasp with an almost casual gesture and stepped back two paces. Its robe fluttered in the wind, but all else was still. The town held its breath.
They faced each other for a long time, or so it seemed. The air was palpably tense, the only movement the rustling of fabric and the nervous shifting of feet. At last it spoke.
“Very well,” said the Papillon, in its strange voice. “Come.” Those were the only words it spoke in the town of Halton Mills before turning and walking away. Like Hazel before her, Laura never said goodbye. Only the faint tak-tak-tak, then they were gone.
Here is what we know about the Flanner:
- It is a machine, enormous in scale. The largest in the entire world.
- It destroys whatever lies in its path without mercy. Nothing can stop it.
- An attack will only result in your destruction. Only two things alter its course: assault on the machine itself, or one of its Papillon.
- No one knows where it came from or why it walks. It is ancient, possibly older than humanity.
- Everyone who goes to the Flanner comes back a different person.
Laura and the Papillon did not chat on the road. They hardly spoke at all, save for the most essential words for a journey. “This way,” or “watch your footing,” or more rarely “time to rest”. There was no need for more.
It was unsurprising that the Papillon spoke little; they rarely used their voices even when taking someone away. Even then, their speech was perfunctory at best. But these were all dealings with outsiders to one degree or another, and one cannot make assumptions. It was true that this Papillon in particular was attentive to Laura’s needs. Early in their journey it traded her modest but impractical shoes for more durable hiking boots. It was also quite aware of her limits. Despite needing to keep moving, it made certain she had enough rest and a reasonable pace. Yet through much of the journey, it remained silent.
This suited Laura, she had little interest in conversation. The Papillon was not her friend, and only a companion by necessity. She focused instead on their destination, the Flanner. That was where Hazel went five long years ago, so she would go there as well. There was no need to ask what it would be like. She’d know soon enough.
They travelled for a fortnight, and it was a difficult journey. They only travelled by road rarely, when one lined up with their path, or where they encountered a river or ravine which required a bridge. Sometimes they stopped a village or farm where the Papillon could arrange for provisions, but mostly they travelled overland. The countryside was beautiful, but she had no energy to spare for appreciating it.
At night, she could finally turn her thoughts to something more than putting one foot in front of the other. She did her share of the cooking, although she had no idea how to manage a fire. Laura didn’t want to be in the Papillon’s debt. But sitting back, sated and sipping her tea, her thoughts always turned to Hazel.
They were the same age and inseparable for much of their lives. Laura at the time was more shy, which masked the wild ideas that she could have at times. Balancing her was Hazel, whose boldness and teasing gave those ideas an outlet so she could pretend they were being tricked out of her. They bickered here and there, but no one denied they were the best of friends. They didn’t know how much more there was to the story.
They were in love, of course. The sort of love that New Usono discouraged. So they never told a soul, and continued to act like the innocent childhood friends they’d always been. But here and there, when they had a moment alone, there were touches and kisses and the little words that bind people together. Those moments were fleeting, but dear to them.
When they graduated, expected to take on the duties of women, they still did what they could to keep the flame alive. They still met, even though it became more difficult to find time and safety. When men came to to them as potential husbands, they were rejected. Their families became concerned but for a time let them alone thanks to their youth. They were together, and willing to face whatever came.
What came was the Papillon, and it all fell apart in an instant. They promised to be together, didn’t they? They wouldn’t marry, no matter how hard their families pushed. They could run away together and live somewhere else. Somewhere the two of them could be free. But then she left. So when the second Papillon came, she took her only chance. Hazel may not have meant it when she said “forever”, but Laura did. She’d hear her girlfriend’s reasons only from her, no matter what it took.
So they continued to walk, and if the Papillon noticed her struggles it gave no sign. After a while Laura became accustomed to the effort. She stumbled less, and the rest stops became less frequent. It was still difficult, but at least she was able to do more than chase after the robes fluttering in front of her. So it was that she became aware of something new.
You hear the Flanner before you see it, the saying goes, as obvious as that is. How could you not hear trees knocked over, roads torn up, and stones pulverized? The sound carries even further than the shaking of the ground, a low rumble that even dozens of kilometres away is unmistakable. This is what Laura heard, a stark contrast to the otherwise peaceful countryside.
Something deep within made her stop once she realized what she was hearing. It was as if she’d crossed a threshold, the reality of what she was doing gripping her. Her encounter with the Papillon and their weeks of hiking were at least similar to things she could relate to. That distant sound, still faint, was something else altogether. The feeling only lasted a moment. She saw that the Papillon had stopped, waiting. Laura wondered if this happened to other recruits as she began to walk again.
Two days later, they found themselves in a thick fog. The noise had increased as they travelled, and by now she could separate individual, monstrous footsteps from the din. To some degree Laura compensated for the ever-increasing noise of the thing already. But here, with no point of reference there was no way to tell where it came from, and it was all she could do to fight off a sense of panic. The Papillon stayed close, which was a blessing as it would have been invisible otherwise. Even its bright colours weren’t enough to penetrate the wet shroud.
They began to climb a low hill, carefully so she wouldn’t fall. The noise around them was deafening and seemed to come from all sides, louder than before. The crashing and shaking was now accompanied by unidentified mechanical sounds. Were those part of its workings? Or a trick of the imagination? She strained to hear as they reached the crest of the hill. The Papillon stopped walking. It motioned to Laura to come closer, and she did. For several minutes they stood still, waiting.
All at once, a wind blew past, the fog dramatically parted, allowing bright sunlight to stream down on them. The fog still swirled, but before their vision obscured again, the image before her carved itself into her mind. That was the moment Laura saw the Flanner for the first time.
Everyone knows what the Flanner looks like. Artists throughout the ages, even in the oldest documents, have been fascinated by its power and the danger it represents. Diagrams are in every child’s schoolbooks. There are even photostatic plates hanging in the Velvet Hall, which the public may view for free three days out of every week. But nothing in a woman’s life prepares for her the first time they see it for real. Even Laura, for all her single-minded determination, found herself in a state between panic and awe, even though it was still some distance away.
The scale of it is immense, as if an entire town larger than Halton Mills decided one day to get up and go for a walk. The mind has trouble envisioning it, the idea that such bulk could rose so high in the air. And yet it does with surprising stability. It does not sway as the machine walks on six long, almost spindly legs, which work in a complex pattern. Even though it is six-legged, the machine does not resemble an insect. If anything, it look at a glance like three men holding each other close, trying to navigate a rough road. There is something of the ridiculous about it, and yet something of the terrifying as well. On the front is an emblem, embossed deep into the metal itself, which resembles the patterns the Papillon wear. Scholars throughout the ages have puzzled over that design without success.
A part of Laura wanted to flee. It was a basic instinct, one many before her felt and obeyed. Another part pushed her forward, for that is where Hazel must be. The two parts warred for a time, but before she could make a choice the Papillon spoke.
“The name,” it said, “is a corruption of a much older word, Flâneur. It refers to a person who contributes nothing, but merely strolls about aimlessly at their leisure. Presumably it was meant with some irony.”
Laura stared, not expecting to hear so much. Indeed, this was the longest it had spoken since they met. But it spoke no more, setting off once again to a point ahead of where they saw the Flanner.
Despite the lingering fog which was burning off already, the pace was brisk. Laura stumbled often, a blessing of sorts since she wasn’t able to dwell on the nightmare machine that would soon be bearing down on them. So she scrambled after her guide and tried to keep her mind on Hazel.
It took half a day before they were standing in the Flanner’s path. It was still several kilometres away, but it seemed like it was looming directly overhead and becoming louder all the time. The urge to flee rose as it became larger, and louder, and those feet that could destroy cities came ever closer…then the Papillon laid a hand on her shoulder. The shock of its unexpected act driving the panic away and bringing her back to reality. It didn’t last long.
“Run,” it said, pushing her forward and matching her speed as the two of them ran headlong into the gates of hell.
Laura imagined this was what war must be like. The awful sounds of straining metal and churning gears and the constant crashing of the enormous, bearlike feet, each of them the size of several city blocks and tipped with claws as thick as an auto-train. She ran desperately, caught in the middle of chaos, amazed that she wasn’t dead already. A foot came down hard, only dozens of metres away. The shock would have knocked her off her feet had it not been for the Papillon steadying her. She lost all sense of direction. Things were happening all around and everything was deadly. The only thing she could rely on was that hand.
Something moved in the corner of her eye, and she turned to see it was a long rope ladder. The Papillon caught it almost casually and pushed it into Laura’s hands. She needed no prompting. Anything to get away from the nightmare on the ground. She climbed as fast as she could, and despite the swaying of the ladder it was a comfort to be as far up as possible. Once, she looked back but the Papillon waved her forward, and she climbed again until she found herself at a hatchway. She gripped the handle tight, but a voice from below made her stop.
“Look behind you,” it said, surprisingly audible over the chaos. “Breathe the air. Feel the sun on your skin. These are your final memories. You will never be this person again, so treasure them well.”
Laura stared at the Papillon, as she had on the hilltop earlier that day. But she took its advice, gazing out over the land to where she thought Halton Mills might be. There was nothing for her there, but it served to show how far she’d come. She took a breath, then two.
Then she gripped the handle and pulled the door open. Now there was nothing standing in the way of finding Hazel, the woman she loved.
Like the first time she was born, there were hands to help her. She didn’t remember the first ones. This time, they were rough in texture but surprisingly gentle as they pulled her through the passage and into her new life.
Everything seemed dark for the first minute or so as her eyes adjusted, before she was able to see the owner of the hands. She was a stocky woman, her skin darker than Laura’s by a few shades, who wore a colourful cloth wrapped around her hair. She wore a red blouse covered with overalls, something she’d never seen a woman wear before. They were tidy and presentable, although the occasional stain spoke of hard work. She also wore a wide, slightly lopsided grin that made Laura feel warm. After the ordeal she’d gone through, a friendly welcome was exactly what she needed.
Behind her the Papillon stepped into the room unaided, closing the hatch behind it. All at once the sound from outside died. It was as if Laura had become deaf, and she looked around in panic. But as with her vision, her hearing adjusted and she realized that it was still audible, only much quieter. What been a pounding cacophany now became a soft thrumming, like the beating of a multi-chambered heart.
No one spoke at first. The woman stood back, giving space to the other two. This wasn’t her moment. Instead, it was the Papillon who spoke.
“Welcome to the Flanner, Laura Lazuli. You are now a member of the crew. Your duty is to care for and maintain its mechanisms, to learn and to teach. We, the Papillon, will support you and see to your comfort, and it is the duty of you and your fellow crew to likewise support each other.”
It paused for a moment before continuing. “You may now leave at any time, even immediately. No one will stand in your way or think less of you. Should you stay, you shall be treated as one of us and expected to work with your fellows. This is the rule.”
With that, the Papillon took a step back and crossed its arms over its chest, one at a time. First the left, then the right. It bowed to Laura, before reversing the process. Realization came over her that a ritual was now completed, one which may have started the moment they met.
The creature turned to the woman who had been waiting patiently, her grin put on hold for a moment. “I leave her in your care,” it said in a much more conversational tone, if still strange to the ear. “In one week I will return for her first duties.” Then it left the two of them alone.
The woman wasted no time before scooping Laura up in a tight bear hug that lifted her clear off the ground, even though she was the taller of the two. “Welcome to the family! Laura, right? I’m Tika Tourmeline, but nobody here is all that formal. You can call me Tika from now on.”
She released a reeling Laura, who was not at all used to this sort of treatment. In fact the only person she had ever embraced aside from family was Hazel, which was a different sort of contact entirely. Tika seemed to realize her shock and placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right, you’ll get used to things. I was the same way when I came on board, probably why they asked me to greet you.”
Laura tried to take hold of herself. “I’m sorry, this is all a bit overwhelming. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, so I’m having a hard time taking it all in.”
Tika laughed. “Everyone here could say the same thing, hon. This place, it’s nothing like anywhere else, and the ones who leave don’t really talk about it. But really, there are better places to talk about it than here. What you need is a bed to call your own, some decent clothes and an even better meal. That’ll make you feel better, then we can sit and talk a bit.”
They did all those things. To her surprise, the comforts of the Flanner were greater than the frightening exterior would suggest. Her quarters were more comfortable and larger than her room in Halton Mills, and stocked with a variety of clothes. All in her size. Given she was not the person the Papillon had gone to retrieve, this was puzzling indeed. But the chance to get rid of the tattered dress she’d been wearing for two weeks overrode her curiosity. she wondered for a moment if they would let her burn it
Afterwards, wearing a comfortably soft blouse and what Tika called “slacks” – she noted with satisfaction there wasn’t a single skirt in her wardrobe – the two settled in a nearby lounge to eat and talk. The lounge was as surprising as her room, spacious comfortably furnished. Diversions of various sorts lay on the tables. There was a small kitchen, which Tika explained was for the crew who liked to cook as a hobby. “No shortage of people who like to eat as a hobby too, so it all works out,” she said with a laugh.
“So the ingredients, the Papillon bring those? The one I was with got food and boots for me along the way.”
“Oh, they’re great about that. I don’t quite know how they get supplies on board, but part of their job is seeing that we’re fed and comfy. We wouldn’t be much good at our jobs if we weren’t happy and healthy, y’know. I imagine you didn’t get much of a good impression of yours, huh?”
Laura nodded. “It didn’t say much, but I assumed it must have been mad at me. After all, I made it take me instead of whoever it was looking for.”
Tika stared at her for a few moments. But then, unexpectedly, she began to laugh out loud. “Girl, you don’t even know! There’s nothing can make a Papillon do something they don’t want to do. If they took you instead, even if you were forceful with them – you have to tell me that story later – that means there’s something about you at least as good. Nobody, but nobody, comes on board if they can’t pull their weight.” She waved her hand, dismissing the whole topic. “For now, there’s other stuff I need to fill you in on so listen up.”
The rest the day was devoted to teaching Laura about life aboard the Flanner. Navigating the passageways was an important lesson since the Flanner’s floor plan was subject to change, apparently at random. Where a hallway or a lounge was one day, might be a high gallery or a stairway the next. The trick was to accept these changes without becoming disoriented. The trick was to keep your destination firmly in mind, and you’d find your way. Crew quarters, at least, tended to be stable. Personal effects and clothing were always kept there rather than the lounges, which were as variable as the rest of the structure.
Learning to communicate with the crew was just as important. The Papillon drew from all over the world, often wherever the Flanner was travelling at the time. So of course they spoke a variety of languages. At some point in the distant past, this diverse group decided that it was unreasonable to learn every language, so they would make one of their own. If they could abandon their lives, they could do the same with their words. The common language that arose was simple and logical, born of necessity rather than carrying on tradition. So it was that Laura learned to speak a new tongue, which she showed a surprising ability in.
Hazel, during those early days, never left her mind. Yet, there were few she could ask about her until she learned to talk to them. Tika recognized the name, but had not known her well. So aside from confirming that she had boarded as planned, Laura would have to wait to learn more.
As promised, the Papillon returned to assign her duties. It was the same one judging by its markings, and Laura had been afraid that it would continue to be coldly formal. To her relief, it was much more casual, confirming the impression that the earlier behaviour was some sort of test or ritual.
“By now you should be more comfortable living aboard the Flanner,” it said. “Life here is much different from where you come from, so you are encouraged to abandon your old notions. All are equal here, including we Papillon. We may differ from you, but we all serve the same purpose.”
Laura had no real skill, but the Papillon assured her that was common. No outsider knows the workings of the Flanner so she was no different from any other newcomer. Menial tasks came first, designed to familiarize her with the great machine. Cleaning, delivering materials, and simple labouring, all under the supervision of the Papillon and experienced crew members. Every task came with a lesson, meant to prepare her for more complex jobs. It was a slow process involving little tidbits of theory and encouragement to watch her seniors work and understand what they did. It surprised her how many of their duties involved creative solutions rather than simple maintenance.
She was often assigned to Tika’s care, particularly after her skills grew enough to make her a useful assistant. The two of them were close friends from the start, giving Laura confidence. Her friend would not allow her to remain isolated, and she had no choice but to abandon shyness of her childhood. But where Hazel brought her out of her shell via teasing and benign trickery, Tika took a much more sink-or-swim approach, pushing her into groups and making it clear she had to win them over herself. Which, thankfully, she did.
The crew of the Flanner was a friendly group who valued equality. Coming from such a variety of backgrounds, it was ridiculous to claim higher status. Everyone was in the same situation, drafted by the Papillon and becoming new people as a result. They worked together, they played together, they all spoke the same common tongue. And so Laura began to grow, and to thrive.
It was here as well, that Laura learned to dance.
Leisure time aboard the Flanner was as important as work, and the Papillon encouraged the crew to indulge themselves. Happy, engaged crew members were much more valuable than stressed and overworked ones after all. The lounges were well equipped with diversions and Laura tried many of them, but it was the music that captured her. Card and board games, word puzzles and physical ones, those were well and good. But nothing could compare to the sounds from instruments she had never even heard of. And among the musicians, several of the crew could not sit still.
There were dances back in Halton Mills, of course. But they were lifeless, formal things compared to the free, expressive movements of the crew. Laura found that she could not look away, amazed at the idea that one could express themselves with their bodies, with no set steps or training. It only took a little encouragement to sweep away her reluctance, and she threw herself in with enthusiasm. From then on, whenever she was free and there was music, she would be twirling and leaping, to the joy of everyone.
By now she could communicate as well as anyone, although she still had yet to master the finer nuances of the common tongue. With that, and the connections she had made among her fellow crew, she was able to ask the one question that still remained foremost in her mind.
“Do you remember Hazel Heliotrope?”
Some few did, but only those who were veterans of many years. To her surprise, none of the newer members did not; anyone who had been there less than three years did not remember her at all. From what Laura knew, even though she herself could have left even seconds after arriving, this was an extremely short tenure. What had happened during that time, and why did Hazel not return after? Surely she could not have changed so much during such a short time that she would have forgotten Laura and what they shared. It was an irritating mystery. Even more confounding were descriptions by those who did recall her
“Hazel?” one old hand said, surprised to hear the name. “Worked with her sometimes, yes. A while back. She stuck out since she was always so withdrawn, it was like something holding her back from getting close to folks. Never saw her on breaks much, just hid away in her room.”
“I knew her, yes,” said another. “Such a sad girl. There was something haunting her that she couldn’t let go. Good at her job, but the rest of the time she didn’t have much spirit at all.”
A third was more philosophical. “You know lassie, nobody stays here for long. Eight, maybe ten years, a bit more for the old-timers, but some a lot less. Different for everyone. This place changes you, and when your time comes you’ve got to go, nobody pries into each other’s business.”
It was hard to believe the picture that emerged of Hazel was the same woman who had left Halton Mills, a little over five years before. The two Hazels were hard to reconcile. The impish girl with the ready smile, who was so loving in private, and the dark, isolated woman who carried a heavy weight. What happened during the time between leaving and arriving? Was she already like that and Laura was too self-absorbed to see? Could the crew members’ memories be simply a false impression? There was no way to tell, and it weighed upon her.
Tika was there for her when the weight of her thoughts were too heavy. It was a strange feeling, having that sort of support from a friend. She never experienced it while growing up, a confidante who accepted who she was. Laura was nervous when, early in their friendship, she explained what she and Hazel were to each other. Such things were forbidden in New Usono; loving someone of the same sex could be dangerous and no one spoke of it. But her friend didn’t so much as blink, instead reaching out to hold her instead. Tika explained that this was but one more thing different on the Flanner from the world outside, no one was “wrong”. Tika herself was a person who did not feel that sort of attraction, but she knew similar couples as well as those in more unusual relationships. More important, she accepted ways she did not share.
“Loving someone, it’s a hard thing,” said Tika one night. The two of them spent the night each other’s rooms sometimes, if one of them was having a difficult time. Most often Laura, but Tika wasn’t immune to the blues. Sometimes their presence was enough. Sometimes they’d fall asleep holding each other, needing the comfort of physical contact.
“I just can’t understand it,” said Laura. “Something happened. Was it me? Did I do something to hurt her?”
“Might be nothing you did, hon. Could have been something eating away at her for a long time that she didn’t show, even to you. Maybe you held her together, and when she left she didn’t have that any more. Maybe something even she didn’t know. People are complicated like that.”
“I keep running the day she left over in my mind, and I can’t find anything. One minute we were the same as we always were, and then the Papillon came and then she was gone. It’s just so frustrating.”
Tika didn’t say anything. She held Laura close, supporting her without words.
“Will I ever find her?”
“Don’t know. But if you find an answer you can live with, that might be enough.”
Tika left one day, a year later. She stopped to see Laura on the way out, her only goodbye.
“It’s time,” she said, and Laura gave her a hug. No one stands in the way when a crew member leaves, and she silently wished her friend well. By then Laura was much more stable, and perhaps Tika felt she she no longer needed to support her. Or that may have had nothing to do with it. It didn’t matter. The friendship they had, the memory of being together, that was real. They shared one last smile before they both turned away.
For the next few years, Laura continued to work, and to dance, and to change. Some of that change was simple experience. Exposed to a welcoming environment that accepted her as she was, among people very different from herself, anyone would grow. But she also changed thanks to the Flanner itself, which exerted its influence directly. Her insight grew, both about her duties and the people she worked alongside, as well as into the machine itself. At some point she stopped seeing it as merely an automaton. In a sense, it was a person in its own right, albeit a strange and mysterious one. Made of metal and other strange materials, but even so it was alive in its own way and possessing a purpose she couldn’t begin to guess.
By now she was a seasoned veteran, much like Tika before her. The tasks she took on required much more than simple maintenance; flexibility, creativity, and an intimate knowledge of the Flanner were essential. In turn, she taught these insights to her juniors. Every member of the crew was expected to learn from and to teach each other, something she came to enjoy. Even at rest, she was fond of introducing young recruits to dance. She loved to teach young woman who, like her, had never done so for sheer pleasure before.
Yet for all this, she never once forgot Hazel, or the troubling mystery of who she became. Despite the knowledge and experience she’d gained, that one thing remained barely out of reach. The answer felt like it was just ahead of her, only millimetres beyond her fingertips. If she could only make up that difference, try a little harder, that was all that mattered. The Flanner had changed her so much, she needed only a little more. A part of her said that was enough, it was time to accept and move on, but she pushed down the thought. She needed more. More change, enough to grab the answer for herself.
And so she did. Inside and out, she changed. Her mind was much more agile, grasping connections she could not see before. She understood the nature of the Flanner and the theory behind its workings with even greater clarity, although most of its purpose and nature remained hidden. It was not only her mind – or indeed her brain itself – which was rebuilt. Her body was no longer the same as it was. Her fingers were longer and more flexible, but with a stronger grip than before. Her torso was longer and leaner, and her face had become. Her dexterity increased manifold, to the point that none of the crew could toss a ball that she couldn’t catch, even if several were thrown at once. But the most dramatic shift was her legs. They had changed utterly, now resembling those of a cat, allowing her to leap and scramble up the exterior of the Flanner without aid. She was not the person who entered the hatch that day; she was no longer even the same sort of being.
This was the cost of remaining past her limit, but one she was willing to pay. She finally found her answer, which until now was hidden by nothing but her own stubbornness. Now she could see clearly, and believed what she saw was the truth.
The Papillon came to her then, as if it knew. It may have.
“Hello Hazel,” she said.
The Papillon remained silent. It never spoke during their entire encounter.
Laura nodded before continuing, expecting no confirmation. “I’m sorry it took so long for me to understand. You know how pig-headed I can be.”
She looked at the ceiling and took a deep breath, then another. “You protected me. You and I were taking a huge risk, loving each other. We could have gone to prison, or a lot worse. There’s no way we could have kept it up forever. If one of us finally gave in to our families and married a man, I doubt the other would have put up with it. Then everyone would know.”
Laura sighed. “When the Papillon came for you, how hard was it? I took it pretty bad, and I’m not proud of that. It was convenient though, how you could get away and no one would suspect me any more. The rumours weren’t exactly subtle, so it was only a matter of time if you stayed. What really mattered to you was my safety, wasn’t it?”
There was no response. Even its robes remained perfectly still.
“It must have been terrible. All that guilt, hating yourself for taking the easy way out. But it wasn’t easy. You missed me as much as I missed you, and it hurt a lot. My ghost followed you, made you want to change so you wouldn’t hurt any more. Anything to stop feeling the shame of getting away. Did that make the change come faster, the way it did when I wanted it? You didn’t want to be Hazel any more, and the Flanner granted your wish.”
Laura stepped forward, and for the first time since they met laid her hands on the Papillon. They were gentle, if slightly inhuman, hands. The Papillon did not object.
“I don’t forgive you, Hazel Heliotrope, because there is nothing to forgive. Even now, knowing all that, I still love you. Nothing you did was wrong. Even giving up your humanity is fine, that’s the choice you needed to make. Whatever little bit of you is left, even if it’s just a tiny scrap, I set you free. I’m not quite human any more myself, but I’m still close enough to manage. I’ll find things to do. I’ll have fun. Maybe I’ll fall in love. You taught me how, after all.”
She released her grip and stood clear. “Be well, Hazel.”
Those were the last words Laura Lazuli spoke aboard the Flanner. No one saw her go, and no one asked.
You already know the rest of the story. She wandered from place to place for some time before finally coming to the capital of Dominia. She found it to her liking and settled down, opening a tinkerer’s shop and danced on the street for pennies. until she met Dahlia Diamond and became a star. Her life was happy and filled with love, which is all she could have asked for.
Is the story true? There is no way to tell. Certainly it was written in her hand, but forgeries exist. None of the people mentioned have ever come forward, and the nation of New Usono refuses to acknowledge that one of their own, least of all a woman, assaulted a Papillon. It may be that Dahlia is right, and the whole thing should be written off as pointless.
But perhaps Laura’s words, there at the end, carry the most meaning. Being correct isn’t the point, and the value is in the telling. Beyond that, let the mysteries of the Flanner stay with it, where they belong.