Title: The USS Breakfast at Tiffany's
Summary: In which Gaila buys a car, struggles with language, takes a road trip, and recognizes that freedom is wasted if she doesn't share it.
When the passenger shuttle veers toward San Francisco, Gaila leaps out of her seat and squats on the floor directly in front of the window, ignoring the squawks of the flight attendants and passengers around her.
"I hope you penis rots off and slides down your leg," she hisses in Orion to the uniformed steward who tells her that the shuttle cannot land unless she returns to her seat. She is a free woman now, and if she wants a good view of her new home planet, she'll have it. It is late at night now, and the ocean -- the first she has ever seen -- is an expanse of inky blackness whose waves are topped by crests of reflected moonlight. A tall bridge hangs in the distance, and the city's blinking lights remind her of the pleasure station glittering among the stars as she sailed toward freedom. She had hated it there, but she couldn't deny that it was beautiful.
The man next to her has beefy arms like the ore haulers who used to visit her bed chambers, and she turns to him eagerly, forgetting her resolution to be as stony-faced and intimidating as she can.
"What are those?" she asks, pointing to the pairs of golden lights snaking down long ribbons of gray concrete.
He takes advantage of her distraction to seize her by the waist and stuff her back into her assigned seat.
"What's the matter with you lady? Ain't you ever seen a car before?" he asks as he snaps the safety harness around her.
"No," she says, and he looks at her like she's an alien, which is okay by her since she is an alien. If he had asked, she would have explained that she'd grown up on a space station with no use for terrestrial vehicles and that the Syndicate wasn't big on educating slavegirls to know anything beyond their immediate surroundings anyway. He doesn't ask though, just grunts in reply, and that's okay too. Explaining the significance of her first moments as a free citizen of Earth would probably be impossible, especially when her Standard's still so rough around the edges. Better to keep this experience for herself, even if it's a little lonely.
"So many things to learn," she mutters to herself in the arrival lounge. She had thought to book an inexpensive room in a hostel, but never considered how to reach it from the shuttle port. Navigating public transportation was another thing the Orion Syndicate preferred not to teach its slaves, and up until now, her social worker had planned everything for her. You can do this, she tells herself. Getting from one side of the city to another cannot be harder than escaping from slavery. And she is totally right to believe in herself because as soon as she starts paying attention, all the screens and signs and rapidly moving people resolve themselves into something that makes sense. Ground transportation sounds like exactly what she needs, and she follows the arrows and rides conveyor belts until she gets there.
She had hoped that she might simply step into a line and demand to be taken to her destination, but even here, there are choices. It's a little dizzying since she's never had to make them before. Except for your escape, she reminds herself sternly and begins to read the fare screens. Asking someone would be easier, she knows, and that's what all the Earth Tourist and Visitor Information Booths are for, but she wants to know she can do this for herself. Or she's so tired and intimidated that she'd rather stand here looking lost than try to marshal more words in a foreign tongue. The reason doesn't matter though, just the decision, so she keeps reading prices and information.
The transporter is the fastest and most direct, but also the most expensive, so she discards that option right away. She only has a few jewels to sell, plus her Refugee Resettlement Allowance, and she has to make it last. She hadn't wanted to take the money really, but the social worker had told her it was a gift from the Federation. All her old slave teaching was hard to ignore, and she knew that only stupid girls refused useful presents. Women, she reminds herself. Now that you are free, you are equal to everyone, so you can call yourself a woman.
Finally, after long deliberation, she settles on a taxi. It is neither the cheapest nor the most expensive choice, and she likes the idea that she can hire and command something. Plus, she is very curious about these human cars. She falls in love with the taxi as soon as she hears the rumble of the motor. The windows are down, the wind whooshes in her ears, and she can feel the vibration of the road in her feet and thighs. Starships are faster, of course, but cars feel like they're moving. Right away, she decides that she will buy one, never mind that she doesn't know how to pilot it. She can figure out anything with an engine.
"Tell me about cars," she says to the hostel clerk as soon as she's finished checking in. She has a feeling that her phrasing is less than polite, so she smiles to soften the words. Even so, he barely speaks to her and does not answer her question, just tells her how to use the internet terminal in her room. "Thirty minutes free with check-in," he says, "and 20 credits for an all-day pass."
So she buys the pass and goes upstairs, turning her back on the chatting young people sprawled on battered sofas in the lounge. She would have preferred to talk to someone about the cars because it's been awhile since she's had any conversation at all, but she finds out how they operate and where to buy them, so she supposes it's okay. It's just your first day, she reminds herself as she crawls into bed. You'll learn how to start polite conversations about non-sexual topics soon, and people will talk back to you then.
In the morning, she checks out of the hostel because she'll have time enough to explore the city when the school term starts next month, and if she's going to have a car, she's damned sure going somewhere new. Using the underground train to reach the car lot -- well, junk yard really, but she's not picky -- is easy enough, and the grizzled old man there speaks politely to her because she wants to buy something. I am a customer, she thinks, taking a minute to savor the realization. She'd been bought a thousand over, but now she can do the buying. That must make her a person rather than a thing.
"I would like to buy a convertible," she says, moving her tongue carefully over the last word, which has both more syllables and more consonants than anything in her slave dialect of Orion.
"Can't set you up with nothing purdy," the man says, and she leans in closer, struggling with both the accent and the way his mustache hides his lips. "But I'll find you somethin' that runs."
"Sounds good," she murmurs vaguely, not quite sure what she's agreeing to, and she follows him across the lot. The vehicle he presents to her is not quite a convertible so much as a car missing its top, but the price is right, so that's okay. She'll just drive it to the desert so there won't be any rain. Parting with the credits is hard, especially when she knows she could have had it for free if she'd just serviced him a little bit, but she'd rashly taken a week-long vow of celibacy when she'd boarded the transport to Earth. Knowing whether she loves sex or whether it was merely forced on her seems more important than saving money anyway.
"Will you teach me how to fly this?" she asks the old man when he comes back from processing her payment. She watches his face carefully, trying to see if her words are rude. She'd looked up how to make polite requests after she'd finished researching cars last night, but there had been so many options that she wasn't sure she'd chosen the right one.
"Never driven a stick before?" He taps a thick knob mounted on a short metal rod in between the car's two front seats. He looks friendly enough, so she must have been polite, but now there is a new problem: she does not know the word 'drive.'
"Is drive the same thing as ride?" At this, he only looks at her as if she's a bit stupid, so she tries to puzzle it out herself. She's certainly ridden a lot of sticks before, and the object he taps does look rather phallic, so maybe yes is the correct answer? But then, maybe it's a Standard idiom she's never heard before, something to do with cars, so perhaps she should say no? She feels dizzy again. Really, she'd had no idea that she'd need to learn so many things.
"I don't think so," she says finally, choosing an answer that will let her say yes or no later without losing face. He looks at her strangely again, but then he starts talking about clutches and gears, so she supposes she answered right. All the words are unfamiliar, but her heart catches a little when he pops the hood and shows her the engine. The strange vocabulary doesn't really matter this time; she can understand things that move.
"Seems like you catch on real fast," he says, looking at her approvingly, and she gives him her best smile. He must love engines too.
"Well, now, soon as you show me your license, you can take her off the lot."
This is a problem since she does not have a driver's license, but she's a quick thinker and she's already got the key in her hand, so she leaps into the driver's seat and presses hard on the accelerator. The car moves for her, just like she knew it would, and she doesn't even stop when she strikes a post on the way out of the lot. Learning how to pilot this thing precisely will take a little time, just like everything else on Earth, but the road in front of her is wide and empty, so she'll be okay.
But less than five minutes down the road, she has a new problem: she does not know where to go. This is the trouble with planning. Even when you think you've done a good job of it, it only takes a few hours or a few minutes to realize that you really only figured out the first step. It's okay, she tells herself for what must be the hundred-and-sixth time since she arrived on Earth. You got to Earth, you bought the car, and it flies for you. Now you just need to pull over and ask where the desert is.
She stops at the first business she sees because it's easier to talk to people when she has a specific transaction in mind. It turns out to be a liquor store, which she thinks is fate, because she's been remembering the christening ceremony for the new U.S.S. Farragut she'd watched on the way to Earth. They'd broken a bottle of champagne over the bow to give her good luck and a proper name, so she supposes she should do that with her car too. It seems a little strange, to tell the truth, but if she's going to live here, she might as well start getting used to human customs.
"Hello, I would like to buy some champagne," she says to the clerk as soon as she enters the store. Purchasing things makes her feel very authoritative, so as soon he swipes her credit chit, she demands, "Tell me the location of the desert."
He looks at her strangely, which she's getting used to, and shows her a map with all the deserts around California. It turns out that there are a lot of them, but that's okay too, because she's learning to deal with having lots of choices now. Her Standard must be getting better too because, unlike the hostel clerk, he has a real conversation with her and lets her download a map to the car's navicomputer. When she admires an old 2D movie poster in the window, he even gives it to her for free. It's the first gift she's received from a man without using her pheromones, and that makes her regret her vow of celibacy a little bit. He doesn't seem to expect services from her in exchange though, which is quite strange and possibly insulting, but it's convenient right now so she lets it slide.
Outside, she feels a little guilty about buying the cheapest bottle of champagne to christen her new ship, but she casts a fond eye over its faded and chipped paint and decides that it will not be insulted. She cracks the bottle over the hull with a single heavy swing and shouts, "I christen thee U.S.S. Breakfast at Tiffany's!" loudly enough for people on the street to turn and stare. They are giving her the strangest looks she's received so far, and she wonders if she should have summoned a priestess or a government official instead of performing the ceremony herself.
"Sorry if I offended you!" she calls out as she spins out of the parking lot a little too quickly, almost losing her movie poster in the process. She snatches it from the air and spreads it carefully across the steering wheel so she can study it while she drives. The top of it is mostly a picture of a tall, graceful woman wearing a wide sunglasses and a long black dress. She looks fun and sexy and unique and respectable all at once, just like Gaila wants to be. Beneath the woman is a simple caption: Breakfast at Tiffany's. Gaila isn't quite sure what that means since no one is having breakfast and she doesn't know who Tiffany is, but it did make a nice name for her car. Much better than her original choice, the USS Liberty, which had sounded too generic for her taste.
"Hey! Watch the road!" someone shouts, giving her a strange salute with a single raised finger, and she realizes she's drifted to the incorrect side of the pavement.
"Sorry!" she calls out, returning the gesture even though it's hard to make her fingers bend that way. What a strange greeting, she thinks, filing it in her ever-increasing list of unusual Earth customs. Then, when she veers onto the opposite side of the road again, she reluctantly rolls the poster and places it in the storage compartment. Of course, that means taking her eyes off the road again, which means she hits an antique mailbox. She considers summoning the police because surely it must be illegal to place objects so close to the road, but since the car's hull hasn't been ruptured, she moves on, ululating happily to herself.
That night, she doesn't bother with a hotel room, just sleeps under the stars in the roomy backseat of the Breakfast. Before she drifts off, she carefully lines up all her possessions on the floor. There are 3 pairs of trousers, 7 sets of underwear, 2 bras, 1 jacket, 2 sweaters, 1 collared blouse, and 5 t-shirts. Each garment is stamped on the inside: donated to the Interplanetary Commission for Refugees by caring citizens of the Federation. Next to them, she lays down her toiletry kit and the pair of practical black shoes she's worn since arriving in Federation space. She doesn't turn them over to see if they're stamped too. The social worker had also given her a blanket, which she tucks around herself, and a slightly scuffed personal data padd whose universal translator is so slow that she barely bothers to use it. She has some jewels too, but she leaves those in the storage compartment, not caring much to look at relics of her captivity - or to think of how she got to them. She unfurls the movie poster though and smooths it carefully before lying it next to the clothes. Everything here, even the car, she's gotten from charity in one way or another; what wasn't given to her directly, she bought with her "gift" from the Federation.
None of it is really right for her, except the car, which looks both battered and sturdy, just like she feels. She traces the letters on the movie poster carefully with a single finger and decides that her car's namesake is the second best thing that she owns. It was charity too, she supposes, but given directly to her because she liked it, not discarded because some woman wanted to clean out her closet. It is also the only thing she's ever owned that did not serve some specific purpose, and this is something she can't say even for the car. She has it only because she liked it and wanted it, and it will be the first thing she hangs in her dorm room when she gets to the Academy in two weeks. Tomorrow, she decides, she will buy clothes that will make her look like the woman in the poster. Maybe when she doesn't look like a whore or a refugee, her freedom will feel real.
The next morning, she marvels at the golden rays of sunlight that gradually wake her with their warmth and light. "Pilot's log," she writes in her battered padd, "witnessed sunrise today at 0614 hours. The light changed from pink to gold. It was beautiful." She frowns, deletes 'beautiful,' and reluctantly re-writes it. Thanks to her years of hacking and downloading engineering texts, reading and writing Standard is much easier than actually speaking it. Still, she can tell her vocabulary is childlike and simplistic, and the word beautiful, which could apply equally to a woman, a flower, or a nice dress, does not adequately express her admiration. One more thing to learn, she thinks, and puts the car in gear.
At least she understands clothes, even if she was never allowed to wear many of them. The Slave Mothers had never quite managed to suppress the Federation fashion magazines, and Gaila's been so excited about covering her body since her escape that she's studied women's clothing carefully. So when she pulls into the parking lot of the used clothing store, she feels relieved on two counts: she's buying something, which reminds her that she's free, and she knows exactly what to do.
The door of the shop swings open for her with a musical bell like the one that used to chime for her customers, a further reminder that she is now a powerful woman who can buy things.
"Can I help you, dearie?" wheezes a bent old woman behind the counter.
"Yes. I wish to purchase a dress." Gaila cheerfully tosses her the single-fingered salute she learns yesterday and stands in the middle of the store, awaiting service, but nothing happens except that the woman's jaw drops and her eyes go hard.
"You young people these days...No respect, none at all..."
Gaila rephrases, trying to remember the more polite words she had used at the car lot, but her mind is scattered.
"Please show me a dress as soon as possible."
"Most certainly not! Come back when you learn some manners!"
Gaila backs slowly out of the shop with her head held high, careful not to show her disappointment. What had she done wrong? The woman's words had implied that the greeting was inappropriate for someone of her rank and station, but the social worker had promised her that everyone on other really was equal. Shouldn't that mean that everyone could use the same language and gestures to say hello to each other? And if there were hidden differences, surely the buyer would have the advantage since people who can own things must be most dominant?
"If at first you don't succeed," she mutters glumly, forcing herself to straighten her shoulders. Maybe the woman was simply embittered by her years of servitude, but the next shop would be better. This district appeared to specialize in used clothing, so she would simply move on and find someone younger, more prepared to serve. Better to get this over with quickly, she tells herself, so as soon as she strides into the next store, she raises her middle finger high. The girl behind the counter, who has dyed black hair and an unusual number of facial piercings, giggles.
"Better to get your aggression out early in the day," she says, returning the salute and sighing contentedly. "Thanks. That felt good."
The exchange is a little confusing, but Gaila smiles back. She might be a buyer, but she's no slave master; she's glad to give pleasure to those who serve her. The girl seems to find her agreeable to service, so she leaves the shop with three long black dresses, a very large pair of sunglasses, and directions to something called a drug store, which the shopgirl says sells medicines and cosmetics instead of illegal stimulants.
Gaila's a little disappointed to find that the drug store is self-service since she had enjoyed being waited on at the car lot and the clothing store so much, and she's doubly disappointed that it's too crowded to present the clerks with the appropriate greeting gesture. Still, they have rows and rows of inexpensive lipsticks, and she selects the most glamorous red she can find.
"That shade will look lovely on you dear," the clerk says, and Gaila puts it on right then and there.
"Thank you. Isn't it nice to possess things instead of being someone's possession?" She is too excited to notice the mixture of pity and confusion on the woman's face.
Two days later, Gaila is flying down the highway through the Mojave, satellite radio blasting, with the tail of a long, gauzy scarf flying through the air. She is wearing one of her black evening gowns and the big sunglasses even though the sun is setting. Lying in the passenger seat is a long, thin strip of black plastic, which a woman at a costume shop had told her was called a cigarette holder. She had quite wanted a cigarette to go inside it, but they had apparently been banned in 2176. That was all right though; waving it in the air made her feel simultaneously whimsical and powerful, and she supposes she'd have to be a lot more careful with it if the top of it were covered with glowing embers.
"Bye-bye Miss American Pie," she sings, slightly out of tune but with excellent volume. She had learned the song from a compilation of 20th century tunes at a place called Classic American Diner. She had rather liked the owner's explanation that United States was all about independence, so she is trying to learn each of the songs by heart in case she wants to become classic and American herself.
When she spies a pawn shop on the edge of the sand, she jams her foot hard against the brakes and the car shrieks to a stop. She pulls it into the parking lot, yanks her jewels from the glove compartment, and strides decisively toward the door. But halfway there, she stops. She glances at the gems sparkling in her hands, makes herself mentally calculate their value. "Smart girls don't pawn their pretties," the Slave Mother had always said. Not unless they could turn them into something worth more. Slowly, she walks back toward the car, settling carefully into the driver's seat. Freedom means she can do anything, not that she should. These jewels are safety. If she sells them, she'll have nothing left to bargain with except sex. Every time she touches them, she feels her customers' slimy fingers on her body, but she can't get rid of them.
She restarts the engine, eases the car back out onto the road. Her fingers move automatically toward the volume control, and she turns the music up as loud as it will go, but this time, her voice sounds thin and fragile in her ears. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot make it strong again, and the sunset passes without her noticing.
"Dammit," she hisses and pulls off the road too quickly, the car bouncing unsteadily across the rocky shoulder. With unsteady fingers, she pries the glove box open.
"I will not have you in my life," she says to the tangled mass of necklaces and rings inside it. In the moonlight, they look as pale and gray as the make her feel. She looks around at the limitless space, the expanse of sand and the alien shape of a cactus casting a shadow over her car.
"You are my life now," she says to all the strange things of the desert. "And I will keep nothing that reminds me of the old."
She does not wait for sunrise to drive back to the pawn shop. When she arrives, it is after midnight, so she sleeps in the parking lot and rises when she hears the footsteps of the clerk coming to open the store.
"These are relics of an old life," she says, flinging her jewelry on the counter. "Give me what you will for them. I desire them no longer."
For a moment, she pictures herself as the thin, graying man behind the counter must see her: straight and green, clad in sparkling black, a look of determination in her eyes. She is the only shining thing in this dusty store.
"Give you a holocam for it," the man says at length. He rustles through the jewelry, not knowing he is touching the relics of slavery.
"I accept your offer." Her language is too grandiose, she knows, but it suits her mood; deciding her fate makes her feel like a queen.
The trade is a good one. Now she can document her journey, and when she spends her night in cheap motels or on the shoulder of the road, she flicks through her holograms. Each of the images make her freedom seem more real, and by the end of the week, she has accumulated hundreds. Only on her fiftieth viewing does she realize what's wrong: in every single one of the pictures, she is alone. Each is taken from the same angle, her arm held aloft above her head, her staring up into the camera with the practiced smile of a whore ready to please. When she is by herself, she poses.
Though she has never made an offering to the Goddess, she decides to do it now. Carefully, she cuts a small square from her dresses, her scarf, and even her movie poster, and she buries them beneath the shade of an odd green cactus that reminds her a bit of herself. It is one of each of the things she would like to show to a friend, and she hopes that the Goddess will understand. If she even listens to lonely slave girls in the American desert, that is.
But if she doesn't, no matter. Gaila points her car back toward San Francisco. Her offering is a promise to herself as much as it is a prayer to the Goddess, a vow that however cruelly she has been treated, she will not forget that her freedom is wasted if she does not share her life with anyone. When she gets to the Academy, she's going to make friends. And she's doing away with that vow of celibacy as soon as the opportunity presents itself.