Home Asteroid Ship Stories
The Partridge
by Michael Bard
Michael Bard -- all rights reserved

I look down, the bio-engineered enhancements in my eyes focusing on each item in turn. Everything's in place and-

She has received the message my AI implant states in my mind.

Normally I would thank him, or it as it's not really sentient, but I'm too intent. My eyes zoom in as Sylvia steps out of her house and onto the walkway, and I see that she's holding the map. I circle in the air currents watching.

Yes, I'm one of the maintenance crew for the ship's interior as I love to fly, fulfilling an age old dream. With the implants, and the carbon-fibre wings, I can soar around the lights and mechanisms at the axis. And yes, I shouldn't be wearing my wings outside of work, but we all do, and, as they say, t'is the season.

Ah! She's reached the first marker and I watch wth my eyes on high zoom as she leans down and finds the first gift wrapped box. The paper is silver and the ribbon is green and she carefully opens it, folding the paper neatly as she always does. After looking at the plain wooden box, and with a bemused expression in her wonderful silver-glinted green eyes, she opens the lid and then drops it. Her coppery hair swirls up and then falls gracefully down in the sixth G ship gravity and with her I watch as the box unfolds itself like a Chinese puzzle and I count, as I imagine her counting, the 12 stuffed monkeys, each drumming away on a little tin drum.

Her mouth smiles and I imagine her laughter as she watches them drum and, after playing a complex rhythm, they stop, and the box folds up, grows four thin metal legs and stands up. Smiling, she straightens out the map, now crumpled from her holding it in her clenched fist, and moves on to the second marker.

James, time? I ask my implanted AI.

Five minutes, he replies.

Everything is on schedule. For a moment I turn away and focus on the weather enhancements all of us flying maintenance workers have spent the last week setting up, shooing one of the faerie out of my hair. I've never liked them, but they're necessary. We need them to pollinate but now they're just pests, but today I refuse to let them get me down! With a slight movement of my fingers, a tensing of muscles that is read by the neural nets I've practiced and trained with, my larger flight feathers move slightly and I begin to fall from my rotational velocity. Now, where is... there she is! At the second marker which is another box, wrapped this time in silver paper with a golden ribbon. Again she opens it, carefully folding away the paper and ribbon, and this time she just watches as the box unfolds and eleven tiny pipes held by eleven mechanical dogs begin playing the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The box containing the twelve drummers crouches down to the ground and opens, and the twelve drummers play their part of the music. Standing and watching, she smiles, and I think she realizes who all this is from. A cool breeze falls past me from the core ruffling my feathers, and a few moments later I watch her shiver and pull her white fur coat tight around her wonderful body. Then the music ends, and both boxes fold themselves up and stand and follow her as she turns her attention back to the map and follows its instructions to the third marker. I'm barely two kilometres above her as she reaches it, and my AI reports that the seasonal weather gift has begun exactly on schedule.

Like the other markers, there is a wrapped box, this time red paper with a dark red ribbon. She unwraps it, folding the paper into a rapidly filling pocket on the inside of her coat, and then watches as the box opens to reveal ten tiny male figures, all dressed in fine robes and wearing tiny silver crowns. The other boxes crouch down and open and play the Russian Dance from the Nutcracker as the ten tiny Russian Lords leap around and around in time to the music. When the music finishes with a crash of drums, all three boxes close.

I swoop lower as she arrives at the next marker, a green box with white filigree ribbons, and watch as she unwraps it. Before her it opens and nine tiny ballerinas begin prancing as the other boxes open and play. This time it's Tchaikovsky's Chinese Dance. The ballerinas leave their box and move into the Lord's box and they all dance in pairs, except for the tenth lord who just looks forlorn, finally creeping into the box abandoned by the ladies. The music ends and the boxes close, the ladies staying with their lords, and then stand up.

Shaking her head, Sylvia refers to the map and makes her way to the next marker, a tiny wooden barn this time, and I watch as she follows the instructions and opens the two halves of the roof and looks down at eight demure ladies milking. They all look up at the sudden brightness as the box with the tenth lord walks over and lets the tenth lord climb down and into the barn. As one, the eight maids scream and run, and the other boxes open and the other lords and ladies dance as the monkeys and the dogs begin playing Rimsky-Korsokov's Dance of the Tumblers and at the climax the tenth lord catches one of the maidens, and the roof of the barn closes as do the rest of the boxes and all stand up and look up at Sylvia expectantly. Swooping lower, I feel the first snowflakes on my feathers through neural feedback from the wings, and I begin to worry as she goes to the sixth marker. Will she accept? I want her so much! I want-

She reaches the sixth marker, a white box with no ribbon, and at her touch it opens to reveal seven tiny swans gracefully swimming as the other boxes open and the lords and the ladies and the maids dance as the dogs and the monkeys play the Dance of the Baby Swans from Tchaikovsky. The tenth lord and the eighth maid cannot be seen. Finally the music ends, the boxes and barn close, and they all follow my love as she follows her instructions and walks down the correct path through the orchard. The snow is thicker now, a bit thicker than planned, but then it needed to be thick to stay on the ground long enough for everybody to enjoy. A group of faerie fly near me and I swoop away, ignoring them as they cross towards their hive with their load of pollen and nectar. I wish the bees hadn't died. I wish there'd been another--

Sylvia reaches the seventh marker, smaller this time, not a barn but a small wooden shed. Again she unfolds the roof, but this time she looks in on six geese laying on nests. The geese are quiet, and as one their necks move and they look up at her, pause for a second, and then look back down at the nests they're sitting on. The other boxes remain closed as the shed closes and stands up and follows Sylvia as she follows the map I sent her.

The map leads her to a fountain, the water dancing and slowly falling under the low gravity and sitting on the asteroidal stone is a red velvet cushion, and on that cushion are four plain golden bands. I swoop lower, barely 800 metres above her, the snow now both above and below me, and nervously watch her face show confusion. The barn box opens, and inside is only the tenth lord, and the eighth maid, and the tenth lord holds a tiny golden ring out to the eighth maid, but the barn closes with a snap as Sylvia looks in, closing before she can tell whether or not the maid accepts the ring. Was I too obvious? Is she going to figure it out too soon? Do I want her to? Snow lands on my back and melts and I shiver. She has to... I watch her stand up, she turns, she's figured it out, she doesn't...! I pull my wings tight against me and begin to fall, but thankfully she unfolds the map, shaking her head, and makes her way to the ninth marker, as the boxes, barn, shed, and cushion all stand up on their legs and follow. With a snap loud in my ears I stretch my fingers and arms and the neural nets read the signals and stretch out my feathers, and with a jerk I seem to stop my fall, though it is only an illusion. I swoop in a circle and climb, trading my momentum for height, though not as much momentum as I would have had on Luna. Blinking the wind out of my eyes, I watch Sylvia.

The ninth marker is an apple tree in the orchard, and in the apple tree are four birds, each calling to the other with a sweet melody. As one, all four leap into the air and chase each other around and around Sylvia's head. The other boxes and containers remain closed as she shoos the birds away but they keep circling, just at a greater distance. Watching, I see the first snowflakes landing on the ground around her, landing in her hair where they glisten, and she looks up. Can she see me? I'd wave, but that would screw up my flight characteristics. Of course she can see me, her eyes, though not as good as mine, are still more than good enough as I'm only 500 metres up now. Waving, she smiles, and then she turns back to her instructions. She hasn't said no! "YES!!!" Again she stops and looks up... Have I gone too fast? Thank God she just waves again, and then walks beneath the trees, beneath the snow that is falling thicker around her, trailed by her gifts.

She reaches the tenth marker, the oldest apple tree on the ship and first she looks up at the branches, but there's nothing. Confusion spills across her face and then the light of an idea, and she looks down at three hens seated on the ground. The hens, noticing her gaze, look up at her and she shakes her head as they join the procession. The four birds are still flying around her head about five metres away, still calling out their song. Checking her map, she turns towards the eleventh marker, but now I can't afford to watch.

I've practiced this for days, picked the pear tree carefully, cleared out enough space, but it's hard. Humans aren't designed to crouch on branches like a bird and for a while I was afraid that I'd have to build a platform, but I finally figured out a way to land safely. For days I've practiced it, but then Sylvia wasn't watching. I have to do it perfectly now, I can't blow it and try again. Stretching out my arms, I flap my wings to gain some altitude, and swoop towards the tree. My eyes focus on the branch and I flap twice more to get the right height. The snow is falling thickly now, but I can clearly see where I have to go, and I've mentally run through what I have to do. By now she's reached the eleventh marker, a turtle shell beneath which are two doves, and in my mind I can see them landing on each of her shoulders and cooing as they rub their heads against her cheeks... I have to assume that that is what occurs. It's possible the programming will fail, but it is so very very unlikely, still... No! I don't have time for this. Readouts projecting onto my eyes display my height, the windspeed, I flap again and circle. Pulling my arms slightly towards my back, I curl my fingers and my wings arc and I fall along the path. My necessary course is projected in front of me and I flare my long feathers just a bit as I fall slightly too fast. Did the doves work? They had to! I'm on the mark, there's the branch. Ten metres, five, I'm below it. Two quick flaps and I'm just above it. I raise my arms above my head raising my wings vertically above me as I begin to fall and mental commands flare my tail and pull it out of the way as my feet touch the branch. I'm not wearing normal shoes or boots, but footwear that I designed, footwear that has hooks on both front and back, and these hooks clench around the branch and I crouch. They won't hold me by themselves, but they're enough so that as long as I keep my balance... My perch sways, leaves rustle, and I stretch out my wings and flap them once to keep me steady. The swaying slows, stops. I've landed. I've--!

"David? What are you doing?"

I look down and see Sylvia, the two doves on her shoulders. They worked, they worked!

"David, you look silly."

The snow is falling thickly now, and I notice that my landing has disturbed a hive of faerie in another tree and they're buzzing all around us, only their implanted instructions against harming humans preventing them from attacking. Sending a mental command which is transmitted by my implant to the net and to the tenth lord and the boxes, I watch as they all circle around Sylvia. My sensorium is now fed from the senses of the tenth lord and I, as him, see the barn roof above me open and using the carefully placed ladder, I climb out, aware of the painful weight of the fifth ring strapped to my back. Far above me Sylvia towers, and I clamber along the barn's ribs, running faster and faster, and leap, flying through the air and slamming into the thick fur of the sleeve of Sylvia's coat. I can feel her step back, startled, and I slip, but clench my fists tighter into the fur and hang there as her massive head turns to look. She steadies her arm and stretches her palm out and I'm able to climb up through the fur and crawl onto it. I've done it! Cradled in the hand of my love, I unstrap the harness on my back and hold the massive gold ring in both hands in front of me towards her, looking up into her wonderful face. Another command and my sensorium is focused back in my body and I'm back in the tree looking down at the tiny figure of the tenth lord holding the ring.

"David--?"

"Sylvia. I love you. I've always loved you." She turns as all of the containers open and the twelve monkeys, the eleven dogs, the nine other lords and their nine ladies, the eight maids, the seven swans, the six geese, all look on in silence. The cushion holding the four gold rings sinks to the grass in front of her. The four calling birds land on the tree beside me as the three french hens stand in a line between us, and the two turtle doves gently push Sylvia's head so that she's looking up at me. Only the buzzing of the faerie can be heard as the snow gently falls around us. "Sylvia," the tenth lord holds out the fifth ring, and a portion of it unfolds to reveal a small diamond, "will you marry me?"

The doves fly off and circle around Sylvia's head.

My sight blurs as tears begin. She won't-

"David, my dearest partridge in a pear tree, of course I will!"

Stretching out my wings, I leap out of the tree and land in front of her as all of the automatons break out in cheers and she laughs as I step towards her, but then she falls silent as I wrap my warm wings around her.

And together we kiss.

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Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard.  Please send any comments or questions to him at mwbard@transform.to