THE FLOAT WAS ONLY JUST beginning as Kitty and her mother walked up the great staircase, flooded with light, and lined with flowers and II/Footmen/74s in red linings. Bracing themselves against the banister, they bent at the leg and waited with keen anticipation at the top step until the special chime was sounded, signaling the first blasts of jet-powered air from the hidden matrix of pipes in the floor and walls. At the same moment, the notes of the waltz began, and mother and daughter leaped from the top step and caught the air, dancing in airborne three-quarters time about the room.
A beardless youth, one of those society youths whom the old Prince Shcherbatsky called “young bucks,” in an exceedingly open waistcoat, straightening his white tie as he went, waved to them as he bounced awkwardly past on a puff of air, then did a clumsy midair course reversal to ask Kitty for a quadrille. As the first quadrille had already been given to Vronsky, she had to promise this youth the second. He bowed and sailed past on the next surge of air, stroking his mustache, admiring rosy Kitty.
Although her dress, her coiffure, and all the preparations for the float had cost Kitty great trouble and consideration, at this moment she flew into the floatroom in her elaborate tulle dress over a pink slip as easily and simply as though all the rosettes and lace, all the minute details of her attire, had not cost her or her family a moment’s attention, as though she had been born in that tulle and lace, bobbing and bouncing gracefully above the floor, with her hair done up high on her head, and a rose and two leaves on the top of it.
It was one of Kitty’s best days. Her dress was not uncomfortable anywhere; her lace bertha did not droop anywhere; her rosettes were neither crushed nor torn off; her pink slippers with high, hollowed-out heels did not pinch, but gladdened her feet; and the thick rolls of fair chignon kept up on her head as if they were her own hair. All three buttons buttoned up without tearing on the long glove that covered her hand without concealing its lines. The black velvet of her locket nestled with special softness round her neck. That velvet was delicious; at home, looking at her neck in the looking glass, Kitty had felt that that velvet was speaking. She had asked her father if her Class III could have a skin of soft velvet, and she wanted to be dressed to match when it arrived. About all the rest there might be a doubt, but the velvet was delicious. Kitty smiled now too, at the float, when she glanced at it in the glass. Her bare shoulders and arms gave Kitty a sense of chill marble, a feeling she particularly liked. Her eyes sparkled, and her rosy lips could not keep from smiling from the consciousness of her own attractiveness.
She had scarcely jumped from the stairs into the interlocking airstreams and reached the throng of ladies, all tulle, ribbons, lace, and flowers, all of the feminine trim gently oscillating in the carefully controlled winds, when she was asked for the next waltz, and asked by the best partner, the first star in the hierarchy of the ballroom, a renowned director of dances, a married man, handsome and well-built, Yegorushka Korsunsky. Without even asking her if she cared to dance, Korsunsky put out his arm to encircle her slender waist, bent deeply at the waist, and at the sound of the next air-chime launched them up together. They ascended rapidly on three subsequent puffs, Kitty’s dress billowing beneath her, leaving below them the throngs of ladies and elegant gentlemen angling for partners.
Three regiments of 77s stood guard at the edges of the room, their dense metal frames resolutely, reassuringly earthbound, their heads tirelessly rotating, even as the supernatant revelry proceeded all around, beside, and above them. Their Caretaker in gold uniform and epaulets kept his vigilant, protective gaze upon the crowd.
“How nice you’ve come in good time,” Korsunsky said to Kitty, as they dropped a foot and then shot giddily back up on the three-beat. “Such a bad habit to be late.” Bending her left hand, she laid it on his shoulder, and her little feet in their pink slippers followed his as he led them through a tricky maneuver, moving over and up, over and up, catching each new burst of air at just the right moment, waltzing diagonally toward the ceiling.
“It’s a rest to waltz with you,” he said to her, as they glided through the waltz. “It’s exquisite-such lightness, precision.” He said to her the same thing he said to almost all his partners whom he knew well.
She smiled at his praise, and continued to look down at the room below them. She was not like a girl at her first float, for whom the tops of all the heads melt into one vision of fairyland. And she was not a girl who had gone the stale round of floats till every pate was familiar and tiresome. But she was in the middle stage between these two; she was excited, and at the same time she had sufficient self-possession to be able to observe.
Kitty turned her attention to her fellow dancers, as the music slowed from triple time to a common four-four and the air slowed with it, transforming from the swift, giddy
“Where shall I alight you?” said Korsunsky, a little out of breath, as the air song came to the end and the airstreams began to weaken in force, bringing the dancers closer to the floor with each subsequent gust.
“Madame Karenina’s here, I think… take me to her.”
“Wherever you command.”
And Korsunsky began waltzing their measured way, downward and diagonally, straight toward the group in the left corner, continually saying,
“This is one of my most faithful supporters,” said Korsunsky, bowing to Anna Arkadyevna, whom he had not yet seen, and exchanging polite nods with Android Karenina. “Anna Arkadyevna, a waltz?” he said, bending down to her.
“I don’t dance when it’s possible not to dance,” she said.
“But tonight it’s impossible,” answered Korsunsky.
At that instant Vronsky came up.
“Well, since it’s impossible tonight, let us start,” she said, not noticing Vronsky’s bow, and she hastily put her hand on Korsunsky’s shoulder as the air-chime sounded for the next waltz, the steady huffing of the hidden pipes began anew, and he launched them into the air.
“What is she vexed with him about?” thought Kitty, discerning that Anna had intentionally not responded to Vronsky’s bow. Vronsky went up to Kitty reminding her of the first quadrille, and expressing his regret that he had not seen her all this time. Kitty gazed in admiration at Anna waltzing, and listened to him. She expected him to ask her for a waltz, but he did not, and she glanced wonderingly at him. Kitty looked into his face, which was so close to her own, and long afterward-for several years after-that look, full of love, to which he made no response, cut her to the heart with an agony of shame.
He flushed slightly, and hurriedly asked her to waltz, but they had only just ascended to the first tier when a whistle blew, the music stopped, the air jets cut off abruptly, and everybody tumbled toward the ground.
Kitty cried out as she fell, but the floor of the ballroom was of course lined with plush mats of eiderdown, and so the greatest risk was not physical injury but embarrassment, which in fact was the result. As the erstwhile floaters, some laughing, some calling out in confusion and discomposure, struggled to their feet, Kitty blushed to find herself entangled with Count Vronsky, who calmly pulled them both upright.
Korsunsky, who had landed on top of Anna Karenina, assumed the drop was triggered accidentally, and was among those taking the incident with good-natured merriment, until, in the next moment, he and Anna were encircled by four 77s. The Caretaker who controlled them-and who had ordered the drop-was striding manfully toward them, dragging behind him a fat, bright orange Class III who was twittering confusedly.
“Your Excellency,” began this Caretaker, who wore a thin black mustache and a smirk of self-satisfaction. “Can you confirm the provenance of this machine?”
“Why, indeed,” replied Korsunsky readily, pulling away from Anna and to the side of his beloved-companion. “This is my Class III, Portcullis. Is there some sort of difficulty?”
Kitty watched Korsunsky’s eyes darting rapidly from his robot to the suspicious and hawk-like gaze of the Caretaker to the strong, pincer-like end-effectors of the 77s.
“Pardon, your Excellency. I did not inquire as to the machine’s name or master. I asked if you can vouch for its origins.”
The Caretaker’s tone was unmistakably hardening. Looking away from Korsunsky, Kitty’s gaze fell on Anna, who had not set Android Karenina to glow in lilac, as Kitty had so urgently wished, but instead to gently silhouette her, with the subtlest overtones of velvet, brilliantly complementing Anna’s throat and shoulders, which looked as though carved in old ivory, and her rounded arms, with tiny, slender wrists. On Anna’s head, among her black hair-her own, with no false additions-was a little wreath of pansies, and a bouquet of the same in the black ribbon of her sash among white lace. Her coiffure was not striking. All that was noticeable were the little willful tendrils of her curly hair that would always break free about her neck and temples. Round her well-cut, strong neck was a thread of pearls.
Kitty had been seeing Anna every day; she adored her, and had pictured her invariably haloed in lilac. But now seeing her silhouetted in black, Kitty felt that she had not fully seen her charm. She saw her now as someone quite new and surprising to her. Now she understood that Anna could not have been in lilac, and that her charm was just that she always stood out against her attire, that her companion light could never be noticeable on her. It was only that, the light, and all that was seen was she-simple, natural, elegant, and at the same time gay and eager.
“The difficulty is simply this, sir,” the Caretaker continued in a smooth, almost supplicating tone. “This Class III device has been implanted with a recorder/transmitter by enemies of the state, and sadly must be destroyed.”
An audible gasp came from the assembled crowd, followed by a ripple of disapproval and excitement. Korsunsky could only throw up his hands with confusion. “What? This cannot be! I am not with UnConSciya!”
“No one has suggested so,” the Caretaker responded, his lips tightening and turning up almost imperceptibly. “No one, that is, until yourself, at this moment. But this machine, your excellency, has been corrupted, and must be destroyed.”
“Wait! No-no,” cried Korsunsky, as the massive 77s, their heads performing their slow, watchful revolutions, surrounded his small orange Class III, which clucked and whirred frightfully. “Portcullis!”
Count Vronsky separated from Kitty’s side and strode across the floor, raising his hands before him in a calming manner. The Caretaker, noting Count Vronsky’s air of presumed authority and glinting silver regimental uniform, stepped slightly backward and gestured to the 77s to allow him entry into the tight circle of enforcer robots around the terrified Korsunsky and his Class III.
“Alexei Kirillovich,” said Korsunsky imploringly to Vronsky, sensing his chance to make an appeal. “This is an old and dearly beloved family android. It belonged to my grandfather and to his grandfather before him. It fought beside him in Kazakhstan.”
“Don’t correct me, Portcullis, not now of all times!”
“Hmmm,” Count Vronsky mused, displaying for all at the party his mien of wise and dutiful authority. “If it is an UnConSciya device, sir, then the thing must be destroyed, its history as a member of your household notwithstanding.” Korsunsky choked out a sob even as he nodded mutely, and all those present looked away, terrified for him, and ashamed as well by such unmanful behavior. “And yet,” Vronsky continued sympathetically, “it would be irresponsible to deprive you of a beloved-companion without reason.”
“Respectfully, sir,” the Caretaker interjected, glancing with agitation at the red and emotional face of Korsunsky, “there is of course no safe way to check the thing; as you must know, automatons when corrupted with such devices are often rigged with trigger bombs as well.”
Vronsky, clearly put off with the Caretaker’s effrontery in presuming to know what he in his position knew or did not know, stood for a moment in thought, his thumb idly tracing a circle on the hilt of his hot-whip. From where she stood at the periphery of the incident, Kitty Shcherbatskaya saw with pained clarity how Vronsky cast a quick, distracted glance toward Anna Arkadyevna, to be sure, despite the gravity of the situation, that he had
At last he gave a small wave of his hand, and bent before the twittering orange Class III. Not waiting for permission from the Caretaker, he carefully, with evident expertise, dismantled Portcullis’s exterior safeguards and cracked open the torso of the servomechanism.
A long, tense moment then passed, during which Korsunsky wrung his hands, and whined helplessly from where he stood between the powerful forms of two 77s.
“Yes,” Vronsky said finally, straightening up and roughly wiping metal grease off his hands onto his sharply pressed silver trousers. “This is a Janus machine.”
“No! No, it cannot be…” Korsunsky shook violently, tears streaming down his face. The Caretaker, wasting no more time, motioned to the 77s, and the cords began to snake out of their torsos, searching automatically for the necessary points along the Class III’s wide orange torso-Portcullis now quivered wildly, emitting terrified squawks and beeps.
“No,” said Vronsky to the 77s. “Allow me.”
“Vronsky!” said Korsunsky. “Vronsky, please…” The air sizzled with fire. In the space of an instant, he had drawn both of his twin smokers and fired off the necessary ordnance at the droid’s face, and Portcullis was junkered.
“Ah, God,” cried Korsunsky, kneeling at the mechanized feet of his companion robot, which never again would give him comfort and consolation through life’s trials. “Merciful God.”
The crowd, while sympathizing with Korsunsky’s grief, still clapped enthusiastically, for the threat was eliminated, the mechanism of the state had overcome the peril, and-most importantly from the perspective of the young romantic people in search of polite amusement and not spy-bots and laser fire-the float could proceed. The music began again, the air-chime sounded and the windblasts resumed, and the waltz continued. Vronsky holstered his smokers, and he and Kitty waltzed several times through the air. After the first waltz Kitty went to her mother, and she had hardly time to say a few words to Countess Nordston when Vronsky came up again for the first quadrille. During the quadrille-as the air-patterns busily evolved, blowing faster and slower, harder and weaker, in keeping with the complexity of the music-nothing of any significance was said: only once the conversation touched her to the quick, when he asked her about Levin, whether he was here, and added that he liked him so much. But Kitty did not expect much from the quadrille. She looked forward with a thrill at her heart to the mazurka. She fancied that in the mazurka everything must be decided. The fact that he did not during the quadrille ask her for the mazurka did not trouble her. She felt sure she would dance the mazurka with him as she had done at former floats, and refused five young men, saying she was engaged for the mazurka. The whole float up to the last quadrille was for Kitty an enchanted vision of delightful colors, sounds, and motions. She only sat down when she felt too tired and begged for a rest. But as she was dancing the last quadrille with one of the tiresome young men whom she could not refuse, she chanced to be vis-?-vis with Vronsky and Anna.
She had not been near Anna again since the destruction of Korsunsky’s Class III, and now again she saw her suddenly quite new and surprising. She saw in her the signs of that excitement of success she knew so well in herself; she saw that she was intoxicated with the delighted admiration she was exciting. She knew that feeling and knew its signs, and saw them in Anna-saw the quivering, flashing light in her eyes, and the smile of happiness and excitement unconsciously playing on her lips, and the deliberate grace, precision, and lightness of her movements.
“Kitty, what is it?” said Countess Nordston, setting down gracefully on the carpet beside her. “I don’t understand it.”
Kitty’s lower lip began to quiver; she got up quickly.
“Kitty, the chime has sounded. You’re not dancing the mazurka?”
“No, no,” said Kitty in a voice shaking with tears.
Countess Nordston found Korsunsky, with whom she was to dance the mazurka; he was sunk in a corner, insensible to the world around him, sobbing quietly and cradling the melted wreck of his beloved-companion’s head in his lap. The countess shook him vigorously and told him to get a hold of himself and go ask Kitty.
Kitty danced in the first couple, and luckily for her she had not to talk, because Korsunsky was all the time weeping for his dear Portcullis, and how “there must have been some mistake, there
Anna smiled, and her smile was reflected by him. She grew thoughtful, and he became serious. Some supernatural force drew Kitty’s eyes to Anna’s face. She was fascinating against the deep black midnight shadows cast by Android Karenina; fascinating were her round arms with their bracelets, fascinating was her firm neck with its thread of pearls, fascinating the straying curls of her loose hair, gaily swaying in the airstreams, fascinating the graceful, light movements of her little feet and hands, fascinating was that lovely face in its eagerness, but there was something terrible and cruel in her fascination.
Kitty admired her more than ever, and more and more acute was her suffering. Kitty felt overwhelmed, and her face showed it. When Vronsky saw her, sailing by in the mazurka, he did not at once recognize her, she was so changed.
“Delightful float!” he said to her, for the sake of saying something.
“Yes,” she answered.
The float concluded with the presentation of Kitty’s Class III, a tall, graceful android constructed with the lithe form and pink coloring of a ballet dancer, just as Kitty in her childish fancy had long desired. The companion robot was named Tatiana, and the beauty of her face and figure were applauded by the crowd. But Kitty could barely muster an appreciative smile, and shortly thereafter she hurriedly left the dance, her new Class III fluttering along behind her, her tutu flapping as they fled.