Monday, September 28th, 2009
The Street of All Designs
Note to readers — this is one of many complete stories in itself that Chelo told us. It is in the timestream of story that takes place halfway through the book-length tale, Reading the Wind.
Here begin her words:
I asked Bryan, once, how it had been on Silver’s Home without me. These were the years when we were separated, before the fight on Fremont, before we all went together to the planet of the fliers. He talked to me about that ever-so-strange place all night. This is the part of the story where he told me the most about himself….I’ve tried my best to remember his own words. So as I speak this into the recorder, imagine that I am talking with Bryan’s voice……
“I want wings.” Alicia watched Tiala’s gold and red bird named Bell swoop back and forth above us. Bell was a living thing, light and fast, with metal parts and the voice of an angel. At the moment it was silent except the silk of its wings through the air. If we weren’t hemmed in by silvery and black buildings, the sun would paint diamonds and stars on Bell’s feathers, so bright she’d be a red glow of life beating in a flame.
Bell was only one wonder among millions on Silver’s Home. Even though we’d been on-planet a few months now, walking through Li City felt like an assault of the strange.
Alicia repeated, “I want wings.”
She didn’t want wings like Bell’s. She wanted wings big enough to carry her above her broken soul. “Why do you want to lose your ability to run? I’d be happy with a bird like Bell. Something to follow me around, let me put a camera on its neck so I can see anything I need to.”
“I’d rather fly than run.”
“That’s not nearly as useful.” But Alicia never listened to me. I’d worked all week to get her alone so I could convince her to choose mods that would help us save our people in the war, and all she could say was she wanted to fly. “I’m happy enough to be a strongman, and you should be happy enough to be a pretty girl.”
“You sound old. Jenna said we could pick a mod. I want wings.”
“She also said wings take too long.” I searched the crowd for a flier, hoping to remind her how pained they looked on the ground. But we were nowhere near a flyspace, and there were only walking people on this street – tall ones, wide ones like me, pretty girls who were probably two hundred years old, and dressed in almost nothing. “Besides, you wouldn’t fit in a spaceship with wings.”
“He’s right.” A girl’s voice spoke so close behind me I startled. I stopped and turned, tense and ready to defend Alicia. There was no telling who was what here. Or how old. The girl looked about our age – maybe twenty or so – but I bet she was two hundred. She had blond hair and blue eyes as startling as Alicia’s violet ones, and she smelled like the grass plains from home in spring when they were a sea of yellow and white flowers. She smiled at us – coy and innocent, even her eyes – before she stuck out her hand. “I’m Induan.”
“I’m Bryan.” I ignored her hand. “How’d you get there?”
She grinned and turned her eyes to Alicia. “Jenna sent me to look for you.”
“Figures.” Alicia glowered at her, and she, too ignored the outstretched hand. “Why not be a flier?”
Her one-track mind made me shiver, the way old Mayah, back home, talked about a Destiny Shiver when the destiny moon rose up over Fremont. Alicia’s fascination with flying made me feel like destiny’s hand on her, like maybe it would be the death of her. Alicia had more hardness than any of us, but more brittleness, too. And here Alicia was, happy in this strange place, and dressed in almost nothing. Just a sleeveless blue shirt that barely covered her top or behind, and the shortest blue shorts under it I’d ever seen. I would have expected to like that, but I didn’t. She wore a crystal data necklace that glittered when we walked under lights, another sign of how much she’d taken to Silver’s Home.
The blond put her hand back. “Being a flier’s even harder than being a swimmer. Jenna said I should keep you two out of trouble.”
That was my job. Keeping Alicia safe for Joseph, keeping us all safe in this strange place full of hidden lies and hidden knives and beautiful women who appeared from thin air. “I want to know how you got here. How’d you sneak up on us?”
So she wasn’t going to tell me. “What does Jenna want?”
“She wants you to figure out what you want to become. You leave in a week.”
What I wanted to become? What I wanted to become? You couldn’t choose that at home. What you wanted to be inside, or what you wanted to learn. But you couldn’t change your body. So Alicia wanting wings wasn’t that crazy, except the winged ones I’d seen all looked miserable. But she could change that much. So could I. It was one of the secrets of this world. I felt struck silent.
On the way into the city on the first day, after Joseph landed the silver ship New Making in spite of himself, before she’d even taken us to her sister Tiala or shown us the bird Bell, Jenna had said these people changed rivers and islands. The words of this girl-woman made me realize Janna had been telling a literal truth.
Induan cocked her head at me, like the camp dogs used to, and wrinkled her brow.
I felt slow, but I finally forced out a words. “Thanks. For finding us. I guess.”
Alicia glared at her, but at least she didn’t pop out with the word wings. Instead, she said, “How do we know what we can do?”
Induan started walking, easily finding a path through the sparse crowd. Bell followed the girl, banking tight gold circles above her head, and so we followed them both, too. Staying out of the crowd was harder for me, since my attention kept snagging on new colors of hair and new shapes for eyes. Some people ignored me, some smiled, some looked wary. Many were lost inside their heads, walking around obstacles well enough, but gone into data like lovers. Wind Readers.
Here, on their home turf, the people of Silver’s Home appeared to be a race of distracted beauty.
But what would they be like if we were fighting them? What weapons were they carrying that I couldn’t see?
We were going to fight people with magic made of nanotech and flesh, the way the bird Bell was both.
And all I had now was flesh, stronger and faster that the original humans back home, but weaker than many people here. Maybe weaker than all of them.
At home, I’d been the strongest person on the planet.
Induan turned a corner around a tall grey and smoke colored building. I started wondering what kind of weapons she had, or what she could change into with a push of a button. And then I turned the corner and forgot to worry about her, since my mouth gaped open and my feet stopped so hard that a tall thin man with a six-legged cat on his shoulder bumped into me. “Sorry,” he mumbled, and flowed around me, the cat’s ringed tail twitching.
Ahead of me, a smoke-colored arch hung between buildings, ten man-heights or so above me. Below it, figures and parts of humans floated in the air, showing off extra muscles in their backs, webbed feet, enhanced hearing, knives for fingernails, hairy pelts like on an animal. And wings. A faint smell like burned twintree fruit bothered me. The air felt damp and tingly under the signs, the way it feels just before rain.
“Welcome,” Induan twirled her hand in a small flourish and Bell rose higher as if in response, flying right through a sign for a shop that apparently sold extra arms, “to the Street of All Designs.”
“How do they do that?” Alicia asked.
“Making all the pictures in the air.”
“Oh.” Induan wrinkled her nose. “There’s water and the barest bit of power and…I don’t remember. Some other elements they put into the microclimate here that lets them show stuff in the air.” She blew on the bottom of a foot hanging just above her head, and the image shimmered and winked, then stabilized. “There’s other places like this, but visible ads are banned on the main streets.”
“So there’s more places to look for mods?”
The man with the cat was already half-way down the street, just walking, apparently immune to the strange forms bobbing above him.
Induan led us deeper, letting us look up and around but keeping us moving. “Well, sure. But not nearby. There’s always specialty things. But you don’t have permission for beta mods. What do you need to do?”
Keep my family from dying here or back home. “I need to be…strong. And lethal.”
“Well, you look strong already. So shouldn’t you choose something that will surprise?” She pointed up. “Like cameras in the back of your head?”
“I don’t want to look different.”
Alicia laughed. “A camera would help you see different.”
“Give me a minute to look around, okay?”
Induan looked at me quizzically. “Can you? Do you have an interface?”
“I can see.”
Alicia gave Induan a conspirational wink. “Give him a little time. He’ll decide if we don’t push him.”
So now I felt stupid, and vulnerable. And backwards. This was supposed to be home, already had become home for Alicia. For the first time in my life I wasn’t the oddest being on the planet. I wasn’t even close. So why did I want to go back home so badly?
“Come on,” Alicia said, “Let’s look for me. I’m glad I’m here, even if he isn’t.”
The shards of glass in her words drove me to turn away from her so she couldn’t see how they stung. I’d never turned away from her before, but now she wanted to impress this total stranger. Was I ever going to understand women? No wonder Chelo sent me off, and Alicia was with Joseph, and me alone.
I walked under the advertisements, staring at each one from as many angles as I could. Every choice looked wrong. I didn’t want prehensile toes; my shoes wouldn’t fit. Or legs that were obviously much stronger, but so bulky they wouldn’t feel right. All the mods that would look right on a strongman like me would make me even bigger, or even stronger, or give me extra arms. But what would I do with extra arms when I didn’t need then to shoot extra weapons I already didn’t have?
There wasn’t anything I could imagine doing to myself.
I started looking around for the Induan and Alicia by checking near the wings, although I knew they were an impossibility. They weren’t walking through the various weapons either, which was a different kind of relief. Alicia had big, fast anger in her. Big fast everything emotional, really, but I didn’t want to worry about her with a weapon. I finally spotted a brief flash of light on Bell’s wings, and Alicia, standing below her, under advertisements that were in words and video. Induan was nowhere to be seen, but Alicia was a vision. She stood poised and curious, like she belonged here. Her bare legs gleamed. I swallowed and walked up to her, waited for her to turn her violet eyes toward me. When she did, she looked light and happy. Curious. And a little like she was bursting with something to tell me. But she asked me first. “Did you find one?”
“You can have mine. You can have two, if you want two.”
The shape of her face told me she was about to say yes, but them she stopped. “No. You take one. You want to go save us all on Fremont, and if you die because I stole your mod from you, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“I’m giving it. You’re not stealing it.”
“Jenna wants us to get one each.”
“Since when do you do what she says?”
She stopped dead for a moment, and took in a breath and let it out and took in another one. “This is big. And… what if we never get back?”
“I can’t. Everything looks like I wouldn’t be myself.”
“But we’re already different. We’ve always been different”
“That’s not the same as wanting to be different from myself.”
Alicia frowned at me, but it was gentler than she had been earlier. “Oh, Bryan. It’ll be okay. You’ll still be yourself.”
“How will I know?”
“How silly.” It was Induan’s voice, coming from right behind me again.
I twitched and turned. She was close, way too close. She couldn’t have just casually walked in. I sounded angry even to my own ears, a shade too loud for this quiet place. “Where did you come from?”
She didn’t take a step back. Her voice was very quiet as she said. “I came from right here.”
I took a step toward her. I didn’t mean her any harm, and I wouldn’t have hurt her.
But she wasn’t there. Maybe a blur, at best, and then she was gone. I drew in a breath and stopped, breathing harder than I should. I straightened up and looked around. There were a few other people shopping for new parts, no one close. They didn’t seem to have noticed Induan popping in and out of the world. But why should they? Maybe people popped in an out of reality around here all the time. Maybe she was only a little less a hologram than the advertisements all around us. I turned toward Alicia, who had her slender fingers over her mouth and looked like she could barely keep from doubling over with laughter.
Induan had included Alicia in her secret, whatever it was.
It felt like being taunted by the original humans back home. I ducked and started walking away. No it didn’t. It was worse. All my life, I’d wondered why people could be so cruel, but we had never been cruel to each other. Never. Never been anything but support.
I walked out of the Street of all Designs, turned the corner, and found a space with a sky hanging above me instead of humans even stranger than me. It was the only place I could look, up, since the sky looked like our sky. Almost.
How had it happened that I had come to this place? Even though years had passed, I had slept them away in a cold dreamless drawer in the New Making. When I awoke, the same cuts and bruises I’d taken when the Fremont toughs beat me up had been red and purple and real. And then healed, almost like magic, so all I felt now was tightness in my skin where the deepest cuts had been.
I couldn’t walk looking only up, so I made myself look ahead and walk through strangers until I found a tree in this place of buildings. I leaned against a building, alien like all the rest in size and material, but I kept it at my back and watched the tree and the sky above the tree.
They found me, of course. The building at my back kept Induan from sneaking up, but it didn’t keep Bell from trilling at the sight of me. Just before they looked up, I noticed how they bent their heads together and chattered like old friends, even though they had only met. They were shaped the same and looked the same age. They contrasted in color; the two might have been the shadow and light of each other.
Alicia saw me first. Her face softened when she did, and she quickened her step.
The fist gripping my insides lightened a bit at that, and I tried to smile for her.
Before they said anything, they stood right next to each other in front of me, and Alicia said, “Take Induan’s hand.”
I did. It was warm. Flesh. Even a bit sweaty. I no longer doubted a human stood physically in front of me. She blinked, and smiled, and suddenly looked a bit shy.
Induan took her hand away and Alicia said, “Watch.”
Induan smeared for an eyeblink, and then she was gone. The space where she had been was so empty that people walked behind it, and I saw them.
“Squint,” the air said, using Induan’s voice.
Shaking, I did as she said. It didn’t matter.
Then it did.
The first sight I caught of her was a leftover dot of red against the clear sky after a man with a flowing red shirt walked by. It took another breath to notice a smear of green near the ground. “If I didn’t know to look, I would never see her.”
Then she touched me and my arm disappeared under her hand. I flinched as far into the cold building at my back as I could, and couldn’t stop myself from saying, “No, please no,” before I plunged my hand back at her, making myself accept the invisibility and know my arm was still there. She took it, holding it, a force alone as far as the eye could tell.
Then she let go and smeared into visible again.
Alicia never stopped watching me. She had the sense to let me get my breath before she said, “That’s the one I picked. Induan is a strategist, and she thinks it’s the best one for an unknown situation.”
Better than wings.
“So you can still have one. You don’t have to give me yours.”
Two pretty girls with the will to become invisible stared at me, patient. But no matter how patient, I had to answer. I had set off this morning to pick a mod. I had been looking for a new weapon, not to become something else. Not to change myself.
I looked past Alicia and Induan, at the tall and thin men and women walking one by one or in groups. They could change themselves. They had. If nothing else, they were all beautiful, even in their strangeness. There was no age here, no infirmity. My eye went to a pair of fliers, the first I’d seen today. They did hobble. But their faces, even the pain that shone in the tight lines of their mouths and the careful way they walked, looked transcendent. Their wings glittered in the light.
Perhaps I needed to find a way to see changing myself as a gift. To see it as becoming. I nodded at the two women in front of me who were becoming faster than I could. “Maybe you two can help me choose.”
They nodded, gracious to the outworld boy.
We were all going to have to outgrow our backward home to live here. As we walked back toward The Street of All Designs, I leaned over to Alicia and whispered, “Maybe when we come back you can choose wings.”