In year '400, Barti had begun planning her conquest of space. Barti was the eldest of the girls of Gangawar, whom time had transfigured into the ladies of Gangawar. She was Ajinblambia's senior queen regnant and ministress, and she was generally referred to as the Prime Ministress of Ung. In this capacity, she exercised, among her many other responsibilities, oversight of Ung's aerospace endeavor. I don't know why aerospace was in her purview, but Ajinblambia herself had made all the assignments, so it must have been a well-founded decision.
Ungians had explored the Dyotic solar system completely. Dyo is our yellow dwarf star here in the galaxy we call Ti. It governs a number of planets, most of which have satellites. So far, in addition to making regular flights to and from Mli, which is the most important of Nya's satellites and which we often call simply the Moon, we had undertaken aerospace adventures that showed that the planet Dli, as well as being habitable, possessed rich deposits of uranium, from which we had been mining fuel to power our cyclopean desalination projects in the west of Ub. Otherwise the Dyotic solar system was quite barren and intractable. Dli is usually called Dlivandor, the suffixed word vandor being merely a descriptive epithet that means mysterious.
Barti's latest plans were for a flight to Alpha Zhrinx, or Orobux, the star nearest our Dyotic solar system. Orobux lay at a distance of 2.02 Earth light-years, which amounts to 1.76 Nyatic light-years, our year lasting 418 days, rather than 365 days. Barti had been developing a new propulsion system that would fly a spaceship so fast that it could reach Orobux in 10 years, traveling at more than 200,000,000 kilometers per hour. Orobux is also our north star.
Originally, Barti had estimated that the newer, faster ship would not be ready before year '410. Now, however, she was saying that it was already ready, and that she planned to launch Photon XX, as the new ship was named, on day 100 of '405, the current year. Photon XX was large enough to contain materials to outfit the 21-year round-trip expedition that would be made by six girl astronauts and to supply them what they would need to build a robot station on any likely planet they could find among the seven known to exist. Photon XX would carry 75 tons of enriched foods and 100,000 cubic feet of water and other liquids, as well as clothing, tools and other necessities. Power would be provided by nuclear fusion, with magnetic confinement by means of a tokamak carried on board. Photon XX was cylindrical, 1000 feet long and 50 feet in diameter.
Of course it was a big sacrifice to ask of anyone to spend two decades enclosed in a metal capsule whizzing through black night gaining only about 169 days of longevity due to time dilatation in so brief a period of time at such a low speed, but Barti was finding girls who wanted to go, and all she needed to do was train them in certain procedures they would have to maintain. The girls, of course, were chosen from the flower of Mecnita, that is, from among the ones who had distinguished themselves in school. Most of the girls were too young to have attended university for any significant length of time by then. They were largely precocious high-school girls who would be back in Mecnita while they were still in their thirties.
All, including myself, were duly impressed, but I felt somewhat embarrassed when I compared, in my own mind, my ferris wheel or spiral with Barti's Photon XX, which was like comparing a dart to a cannon. Barti did not suggest any comparison or show in any way that she looked down upon my accomplishments. I hoped that she didn't secretly feel any such superiority, but if she did, she was entitled to her pride, I suppose.
The six astronauts were named Stella, Tyrovvi, Shqa, Coccava, Sitara and Zvezda. The q in Shqa is pronounced like Kazakh or Arabic qaf, that is, as a voiced uvular plosive, while sh is like English sh, but without the y-glide that accompanies sh in most speakers' pronunciation. The y in Tyrovvi is like long German u-umlaut. All the other letters are more or less as you would imagine, but make sure to pronounce geminate consonants double if you want to make a halfway decent approach to spoken Nuu-Ungi.
Anyway, let me return to Barti's space program. The astronauts were all highly intelligent girls, in the 200-plus I.Q. range, in tip-top physical shape and possessed of tremendous morale and esprit de corps. Their duties aboard Photon XX would be fairly simple, and there would be plenty of manuals and visual aids to assist them. Still an orientation of some 50 days was required.
I saw them, I was in love again they were all so attractive and
cheerful, and I shed a tear to think that I was way past the age when I
might have considered making a bid myself for a berth on the ship.
It was ruled by Ajinblambia that the girls might marry in order to make their journey nore pleasant, and the six of them managed to settle upon three marriages that were agreeable to all concerned. Of course, these were lesbian marriages. What else could there have been on a planet whose population is 99% female and where astronauts are legally required to be girls?
Cissi's Newsletter would cover the launching.
Let me digress briefly at this point to mention that in year '404, after a number of discussions, it had been agreed among Ajinblambia, Udi and the five Royal Councilloresses, or Eldor Geese, that Nuu, the language of Ung, needed to become better standardized in order to eliminate misunderstandings arising from grammatical questions. Technical writings, legal pleadings, media broadcasts and many other areas of interest needed more precise rules on orthoepy, orthography, syntax and other facets of the Ungi language. So Ajinblambia had formed an academy to the very purpose. It was called The Academy of Nuu, the Language of Ung. I was a non-voting member of the academy. In other words, I might attend meetings but would not really have a meaningful role.
The Academy of Nuu, the Language of Ung
Ajinblambia, Udi, Barti, Vinja, Usha, Dhabbi, Mlechi
The reason that I was not chosen as a voting member was that my voice was too deep. One of the rules promulgated by the academy was that Nuu was to be uttered in the soprano register, preferably above C5, that is, at least one octave above middle C. I could speak in that register, but kept forgetting myself and allowing my voice to sink below C5, which was considered substandard for Nuu. Ajinblambia had scheduled an operation on my vocal chords to raise the pitch and lower the volume of my voice. She said, as if she had been jesting, that after my operation I would sound like a five-year-old girl. I was very apprehensive about this as I awaited the operation.
Ajinblambia's jest was not very far-fetched at all. Early in '405, I underwent laryngeal surgery, emerging with a voice so high that I could not make a sound below C5 but could manage C6, or high C, quite easily. The volume of my ordinary speaking voice had become very slight also, but with effort I could still speak fairly loud when the occasion required it. When I got home after surgery, I greeted Nunu, who was seated in my alcove reading a book on geology.
"What happened to your voice, Sissy?" Nunu asked. All along, Nunu had been calling me Bibi, but now that she was five years old and distinguished as a harpsichordist, she felt entitled to call me by my name. This was like a girl on planet Earth who has been calling her mother Mommy but suddenly calls her Harriet, Georgette or Maryanne--whatever her name may be.
"I just had surgery, Sissy." I answered without paying attention to my wording.
She and I both laughed when we realized we had both called each other Sissy. After that, we always called each other Sissy.
Anyway, Nunu said, "You have such a sweet tiny voice now, Sissy. You sound just like a little girl. I'd imagine you can sing beautifully too. Why don't you write a few songs for yourself, just for fun?" This was a little patronizing for a five-year-old girl, but she was the Prodigy of Ramdonia, after all.
Nunu's idea was so exciting that in the next few days I had composed a suite of ten little songs to be sung in the range between C5 and C6. They were called: 'None Fairer than Queen Udi'; 'Ruffles and Lace'; 'The Chickadee'; 'Honeybees in the Lilies'; 'Twenty Score and Eighteen Panties'; 'Three Cheers for the Eldor Geese;' 'Lipstick'; 'Silver and Roses'; 'Shopping at Cissi's'; and 'Attar of Violets'. Each song lasted about three minutes.
I sang the songs a cappella, rehearsing every evening for a few days, until I had memorized them entirely. Zevanardia, who played a soprano recorder like a virtuosa, asked whether she might play a little overture and a little coda for each song. Her idea was to use a very analogous melody and reach a certain note where I would begin without pause, the intent being to make it sound as if the recorder had started singing. I liked this notion tremendously, and we did just as Zevanardia had suggested. The effect was very lovely, very cute, just darling.
Nunu heard us a few times and said that all we needed was a harpsichord accompaniment to provide the beautiful melodic line with harmony. Zevanardia wondered if the harpsichord would interfere with the recorder.
"It won't interfere, Sissy," said Nunu to Zevanardia. Now we had a third Sissy.
In days to come it was apparent that Nunu, in addition to being a composer and harpsichordist, was an oracle on music theory as well. Little by little, she assumed the lead role in producing the suite of songs. She always seemed to have the answers to our questions.
Eventually, we decided to organize a chamber group. We called ourselves The Three Sissies. Nunu was acknowledged as the directress.
Now that Nunu had been graciously received by Queen Udi so recently, I too basked in the sunshine of a further rapprochement with Udi, so I did not hesitate to call her and apprise her of the formation of The Three Sissies, explaining just what we had in hand and requesting that she allow us once again to appear in her study, where we would perform the song cycle. She seemed really pleased that we had formed such an ensemble and invited us to come the very next day, if we could be ready. We accepted of course, even if it meant we'd have to hurry around a bit to prepare ourselves.
I rushed out to Cissi's in New Ozgingd and had the girls there make three gowns of white silk satin with cuffs, square necklines and hems trimmed with the key or fret pattern in purple velvet. The talented seamstresses were able to make them in about 3 earth-hours, so I was back at Bo House in the early evening. These white satin and purple velvet gowns would become our distinctive garb when we performed, we decided, supposing that we would have several opportunities in the future.
...key or fret pattern...
The next day, in the late mid-morning we were back in Queen Udi's gorgeous study, and once again Stlembi and Pixidixia, now in their mid-twenties, served us snacks and refreshments.
Then Nunu sat at the harpsichord, motioning for Zevanardia to come stand nearby to play a few trial notes. Nunu gestured with her hands as if she had been a conductress, and when Zevanardia was playing as Nunu wanted her to play, Nunu made a cutting gesture with her hands palms-down making little arcs in scissors fashion as she turned her wrists clockwise and counterclockwise. Then she motioned to me to have me come warble a few tiny peeps, again conducting and finally cutting when she was satisfied. This procedure was partly theatrical. We wanted to make sure that Queen Udi understood that Nunu, our five-year-old prodigy, was the directress and conductress of The Three Sissies. It was apparent that Udi did indeed understand, as she beamed in astonishment.
Our first song was 'None Fairer than Queen Udi', which we delivered in tones of silver and gold. Queen Udi was flattered and delighted. She even blushed a little to hear herself so sonorously praised. Then we did 'Attar of Violets' and 'The Chickadee', and so on, one after the other, till we had played and sung all ten.
Queen Udi was so impressed that she asked if there was any favor she could do us in return for our compliment, and I mentioned that I had been excluded from the Academy of Nuu because of the quality of my voice. Queen Udi agreed that this was now preposterous, regardless of whether there had been any good reason for it before, and she said that she would take the matter up immediately with King Ajinblambia, assuring me that I could take it for granted that my exclusion from the academy would be annulled. The sultry look of a femme fatale crossed her face for a few milliseconds, hinting that she had knew how to get her way with the Vrikshaya. I tried not to see that siren expression that was quite unlike the Udi that I knew, so pious, polite and ladylike.
The very next day, Ajinblambia called me to her office to accord me a full voting membership in the academy, complimenting me on my new voice and the beauty of my singing. With a playful grin on her face, she said, "I've decided to nickname you the 'Flycatcher' of Mecnita."
"The Flycatcher of Mecnita!" I exclaimed in horror.
"Why not? Flycatchers have very pretty little voices."
"I do not want to be the Flycatcher of Mecnita."
By now, Ajinblambia was laughing merrily. "Well, what about the 'Berrypecker' of Mecnita?"
"Please, Ajinblambia, please."
"Very well. What about the 'Nightingale' of Mecnita?"
Finally, we had found a nickname I could accept blithely, and the Vrikshaya would formalize it in the next few days. Ajinblambia then asked me to recite the lyrics for one of my songs, without the music, so that she could judge the poetry. So I declaimed these verses:
With twenty score and eighteen panties, I,
A calendar would fashion for the year.
Each single date embroidering, I'd fly
With fingers stitching on the fabric sheer,
With red and purple, pink and yellow floss,
Adorning numerals with dainty flowers,
Each pretty blossom like unto a boss
Protruding subtly to count out the hours
That, coming in succession, make the day.
So numerous my suite of panties grows,
I need a chest of lacquer or parquet,
Whereto affixed the emblem of a rose
Would intimate the nature of the cargo
before stray hands a mute
A couple of days later, Ajinblambia invited me to her office again. Resting on her large desk was a beautiful chest, lacquered black, measuring a foot in height, a foot in width and two feet in length. On top there was a perfectly executed painting of a double floribunda peach rose. She opened the chest, and I saw it was filled with neatly folded plain white silk tricot panties, smooth and glossy. Next to the chest there was a large box filled with dozens of skeins of embroidery floss in a rainbow of colors, a couple of envelopes of embroidery needles, a few hoops and some other supplies.
...a perfectly executed painting of
a double floribunda peach rose...
Ajinblambia said that she thought it would be fitting for me personally to embroider the 418 pairs of panties that I had sung about. Then when I appeared on the stage, I could draw them from the chest and toss them about, like some sort of heavenly confetti. Of course, she was still teasing me, but I recalled very vividly my years of panty-slavery, so it was not without apprehension that I listened to her little jokes.
"That's too much, dear Sita. That would take a couple of years."
"Very well! Have your girls help you if you wish."
And so I did, the next day I had Vlarxbub drive me out to Cissi's in New Ozgingd with the lacquered chest of panties, distributing all but one of them to 417 girls practiced at hand embroidery, offering each of them a bonus if she stayed long enough to finish her pair of panties that very day. I did the last one myself. We were all done around 8 Ungi, so Vlarxbub, who had remained in the factory, watching the seamstresses and eating his fill in the cafeteria, drove me to Bo House with the chest, turning around thereupon to go back to Eldor Palace.
This may seem like wild extravagance, but a planet with 8 billion people and a Gross Planetary Product of $300 trillion can occasionally allow itself such luxury. There were pockets of mild poverty on Ub, the newly-annexed continent, but the House of Vrikshaya and Ung was now upraising them economically. There was no poverty on Eb, the continent where Mecnita was situated and which was the original Kingdom of Ung.
On day 33 of year '405, there was a massive prison break at Slanchgav Prison in suburban Slanchgav. The prison had held about 500 prisoners, 290 of whom had managed to shatter a concrete wall and pass through a gaping hole thus created. These were all Qazudi hierarchs known as Jvashnas who had led the revolt against the Kingdom of Ung in '389 and '390. In the siege of the Rajassi, the seat of the erstwhile theocratic government of Qazudistan, located in Bihaka, the capital, Ungi forces had captured all 300 Jvashnas then alive. Rushed to Mecnita and tried, they were all found guilty of insurrection and treason, and sentenced to life-imprisonment in Slanchgav Prison. They were considered political prioners, and, as such, segregated from criminal prisoners, that is, from murderers, arsonists, robbers and the like. Ten of the Jvashnas had died since '390, which accounts for the reduced number that escaped. No criminal prisoners were involved in the break-out.
Criminality is so rare in Ung that there are only two small prisons on the whole continent of Eb--Slanchgav Prison and Bogolrog Prison, in Bogolrog, a city around 4000 miles northeast of Mecnita. There had not been a murder in Mecnita in decades, though there had been 2 or 3 in rural locations in the last 10 years. Most of the criminal prisoners had been found guilty of lesser offenses, like larceny, vandalism and assault. The continent of Ub was similarly free of crime, if you don't consider the Qazudi Revolution a criminal manifestation.
I had been involved in the Qazudi Revolution and, so, was now considered at risk, despite the vast change that I had undergone in appearance and apparel. So Ajinblambia ordered that I be confined in Eldor Palace until the escaped Jvashnas had been apprehended. Moreover, armed lady police officers would be posted around Bo House for the sake of Ezmeraudia, Zevanardia and Nunu, just in case the Jvashnas should learn of their existence and whereabouts.
It was agonizing to be enclosed in Eldor Palace for protection from possible danger, with my loved ones at home in Gvagma Village without me, probably extremely worried, but Ajinblambia's decision to relocate me temporarily, was sound.
On the very first night of my enclosure, I woke around midnight, turned on a lamp at my bedside and glimpsed myself in a large mirror opposite the foot of the bed. My face had gone white, as if I had been a ghost. My breath was tense and hurried. I was in a fright. I was having a premonition of some terrible happening about to take place at Bo House, and I shuddered at the thought that my three dearest ones were there, far more vulnerable than myself.
Despite the hour, I called Ajinblambia. She was still up and about, working in her office, and bade me come right over. Throwing on a peignoir and not bothering to comb my tousled hair, I was at her door in thirty seconds. I told her all about my premonition and she assured me that it was probably entirely imaginary.
Nonetheless, for my equanimity, she would send Fstambolc and Mbaliderv, two palace chauffeurs, with six lady police officers in one of Udi's limousines to fetch Ezmeraudia, Zevanardia and Nunu and bring them to Eldor Palace.
Incidentally, the Jvashnas were all wearing unbreakable electronic identification bracelets, but the sensors that could detect them would work only at small distances, five miles or less, so no great hopes had been pinned on the idea that the bracelets would help detectives locate the escapees. After all, Eb has an area of 90 million square miles, so there was plenty of room for the Jvashnas to get lost, even with the no-fly, no-sail restriction that had been attached to their names.
However, when the limousine carrying the chauffeurs and policewomen approached Bo House, the sensors that they carried began to emit signals, as if one or more of the Jvashnas had been lurking about. So Fstambolc drove the limousine to a spot as near as possible to the rolling door we had installed to facilitate moving the harpsichord. Ezmeraudia, Zevanardia and Nunu were instructed to get in the car, and keep their heads down. Two chauffeurs and two policewomen drove the three residents of Bo House back to Eldor Palace, where we had a joyous reunion.
The other four policewomen stayed at Bo House and radioed for reinforcements. Within three hours they had beaten six Jvashnas out of the bushes, so to speak. They were arrested and held in custody in the palace for days on end for interrogation.
Using harsh interrogation methods falling short of torture, the police were able to wring a good deal of information out of the hierarchs. Within ten days, following leads provided by the captured Jvashnas, the police had rounded up the whole mob in a number of far-flung hideouts all over the continent. One Jvashna was found dead, with a slashed stomach. It was supposed that he was the victim of another Jvashna with whom he had quarreled.
The 289 recaptured Jvashnas were confined in strong houses at various locations around the metropolis, while contractors retrofitted the walls of Slanchgav Prison. The concrete walls had been one foot thick. Now they would be three feet thick, with a fabric of two-inch-diameter reinforcement rods cast inside, just as if they had been the walls of a containment structure in a nuclear power plant. It would definitely take more than a gang of turbaned theocrats to break out the next time.
By day 75, the 289 insurrectionists were locked securely in Slanchgav Prison once again.
One may wonder how frail women retrofitted those heavy-duty concrete walls, which could be done on planet Earth only with the most laborious effort of musclebound roughnecks. Indeed that was the situation on Nya as well for many a long millennium, but in the last few hundred years, the construction industry has evolved to the point where almost everything is done by huge automatic machines, operable with pushbutton ease. For example, the assembly of a fabric of large-diameter reinforcing rods is controlled by a computer program entered on a keyboard. Once the code is in the machine, lifting devices equipped with electronic sensors find and move the individual rods and place then exactly where they are supposed to be. Robot welding machines make the necessary welds, and when a whole fabric 20, 40 or 60 feet long has been manufactured in this fashion, a crane lifts it onto the bed of a truck trailer. The driver of the truck sits in comfort in the air-conditioned cab just as if she had been sitting in an office. When the fabric has been carried to the place where it is to be installed, other lifting machines raise and poise the piece, while concrete issuing from mobile batch plants is injected between light-weight concrete forms. As soon as the concrete is sufficiently hydrated, the forms are removed. Alternatively, stay-in-place forms may be left to be integrated with the pour. And so a wall goes up, with hardly so much as a sore arm or a bruised leg.
Zevanardia and I had been enjoying such success with Gvagma, Gvagma Village and Cissi's that I had begun to feel "omnipotent", if you will. I had begun to feel subconsciously and consciously that I was in charge of everyone and everything around me. The Jvashnas' break-out, if it had no other saving grace, taught me that I was still a small person, entirely dependent upon the solicitude of the royal couple. I was less a protectress in my membership in the House of Vrikshaya and Ung, and more a protegee. Oh well, perhaps in the next world, if there be a next world, I'll be one of the great ones.
Another consequence of the Jvashnas' break-out was that I was now convinced that my premonition of danger at Bo House, which had proven to be insightful, demonstrated that I was a clairvoyant, enjoying latent psychic powers that might appear spontaneously in times of stress.
Ajinblambia said she would have me tested by parapsychologists and mediums to see if they could detect any statistical evidence or authenticate any anecdotal accounts that attested paranormal powers in me. After several days of testing, they had found absolutely nothing. My ability to guess cards and numbers was so close to being equal to what could be expected probabilistically that the testers teased me saying that I "outchanced chance itself".
Around Bo House, Zevanardia, Ezmeraudia and Nunu teased me for a couple of days by hiding little objects and asking me to find them. I didn't find much, but it was fun anyway.
On day 90, the six girl astronauts--Stella, Tyrovvi, Shqa, Coccava, Sitara and Zvezda--came out to Bo House on the occasion of a mini-banquet we threw in their honor. I had asked the Vrikshaya to invite them on my behalf, as I felt it might have appeared presumptuous of me to invite them on my own initiative, given the fact that I barely knew them. They were not at all aloof or condescending, in spite of their anointment as soon-to-be aerospace heroines. Quite the contrary, they were merry and friendly, returning the kisses that Ezmeraudia, Zevanardia, Nunu and I planted on their lovely cheeks and lips.
We served roast pork, roast venison and broiled salmon, with baked potatoes and sour cream with chives, and a salad of lettuce, mushrooms, onions, cherry tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and green olives under a dressing of vinegar and oil, along with crisp hard rolls of wheat sprinkled with poppyseeds, and thin little circles of rye bread. Dessert was pecan cobbler with caramel syrup. Then came wine, then coffee.
The young astronauts asked us to sing, and we were happy to oblige, singing a couple of our usual repertory plus a song we had created in their honor, which was entitled 'The Girls of Orobux'.
The girls did not know what they would encounter in space and in the vicinity of Orobux, or how their social life aboard the spaceship would turn out, so they couldn't tell us much about their upcoming trip. Besides, on certain technical matters, they were committed to confidentiality. As we say here, the information was "classified". Nor did Zevanardia, Ezmeraudia and I try to pump then for further details. Nunu kept asking a lot of questions that she should not have been asking, but we managed to make her behave a little better and heed the rules. She was just a child, after all.
As evening grew, we all relaxed in our living room, which had three couches and a number of armchairs. We drank more wine, and everyone became very talkative and friendly. I admitted that I felt apologetic about my contributions to life in Ung when I compared Gvagma, Gvagma Village and Cissi's to the aerospace adventure that our six marvelous young guests were about to embark upon, but they told me very candidly that I should not apologize. They felt that I had added much to cultural life in the great city of Mecnita and beyond, and that I should be quite proud. They said they loved the village and Cissi's.
Eventually, getting tipsy, we began to dance. I danced with Stella several times. She was so tall and shapely that I could not resist the temptation to throw my arms about her neck, as if begging for kisses. Zevanardia arched her eyebrows, in mock jealousy, while she herself danced with Sitara. Ezmeraudia danced with Coccava, and Nunu, of course, danced with absolutely everybody. She was such a little doll!
It was truly sad that these six magnificent young ladies would be gone for twenty years, but this was what they wanted. All we could do was exclaim our bon voyages and farewells again and again. Then, despite the hour, I called Vlarxbub and asked him to come in the limousine and drive the girls to their houses.
On day 100, Ezmeraudia, Zevanardia, Nunu and I had Vlarxbub chauffeur us out to Pongdoir Field to watch the launching. There was such a throng of spectators and well-wishers that we assumed that we'd be lost in the hullabaloo and hoopla. But the six girls remembered us and made a point of coming over and hugging us one last time. Then we watched as they climbed the ladder to the module 1000 feet away, and minutes later, the gleaming ship rose and the girls were gone.
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