Shama felt like she was falling through a thick fog. It was an odd sensation as if she were zipping along at the speed of light and crawling at a baby’s pace at the same time. Shadows cushioned the fall, and she glimpsed her mother’s face in one of the dark shapes pressing in on her. Anna’s eyes were half closed, and her lips were parted in song. Then, the lid of the tunnel closed, cutting off all light, and the ocean of darkness engulfed her.
Shama felt the taxi lifter judder, and her eyes flew open. LowCity! Her
stomach churned. Sucking in a few deep breaths, she waited for the dizziness to pass.
“14th Street Station,” the robotic lifter-taxi driver called out. It was a Friendly model, with a toothy smile and round eyes, but its gruff voice gave away that it was military hardware masquerading as a service bot.
Out the window, Shama recognized the Lifter Station near her home.
A sign above Eco-lodge flashed green, matching the grassy-looking solar panels on its roof, “The best things in life are Real.”
It felt so good to be home again. To be wearing her short shorts and Chips are a Complete Nutritional Meal shirt. She wiggled her toes. To be sockless. She was set to have a great day, except that she couldn’t ignore Larm, the hologuard that accompanied her.
A meter taller than any human being, the hologuard wore a bright blue uniform with shiny gold buttons. When Shama took a step, the hologuard took a matching one. Ionized to her DNA, the holowoman stuck to Shama’s side like an oversized shadow. Larm was so tall that the hologram made Shama feel as if she had shrunk.
As she waited for the taxi-lifter to inch forward and stop in front of the platform, Shama reviewed the long list of things she wanted to do.
“We take-off from here at 0800 hours,” the robotic lifter-taxi driver called out.
Shama wondered if the driver been programmed to leave without her. But, no point in asking. “Got it.”
“Good day,” the robotic-lifter taxi driver said.
Throughout the exchange, Larm continued to stare straight ahead. Its thick eyebrows, knobbed nose, and crinkled lips looked tough, almost fierce.
Shama waited for the door to the lifter to open. “Since you’re not interactive,” she said to Larm. “I don’t know why Perbile sent you.”
The door parted.
Shama stepped onto the platform and gazed out over the complicated jungle of LowCity homes, businesses, shanties, bridges, and ground-based streets filled with people, stray dogs, and a lone dodo. As she listened to the familiar croak of raven bots delivering their messages, and the harsh voices of the squawkers shouting out the latest news, she gazed up at the rainbow canopy of gaseous highways. Lifters flew on these sky highways, marked by stripes of different colored gas, to all the corners of the worlds. This morning, the cloud chasers had vacuumed up the pollution clouds, and the part of the sky that wasn’t blocked by the monstrosity of UpCity was light blue.
UpCity was an enormous round module with tendrils of lifters dangling from its sides. It was covered in brightly colored holo-ads, at least one for each of its 10 million people.
Although the sun was still low on the horizon, it beat down on Shama, causing tiny beads of sweat to form at her hair line. For the first time in weeks, her feet and hands felt warm. She breathed in the salty sweat and the dusty driness of lower earth. Standing at the top of the stairs, Shama felt so good she called out, “I’m back.”
Things weren’t orderly here in LowCity like they were in UpCity. Lots of crazies lived in Shama’s neighborhood, so only a man with red eyes–Vampire Eyes, Glow in the Dark–glanced in her direction as she hopped down.
When Larm followed, mimicking her hops exactly, Shama taunted the hologuard, “Get ready. I’m going to stand on my head.”
But her light-hearted mood vanished when Shama’s feet touched the adjoining sidewalk.
A squawker blasted out the latest news: Police still searching for killers in Fankenstein Pet Store case.
With Larm at her side, Shama stuck out like a dodo in a pack of wolf-dogs. “You’re going to get me killed,” she muttered to Larm, as she backed up to hide in the shadows of the eco-hotel.
A microchip in the sidewalk triggered by her weight, spieled its message. “When you rent one of our luxurious hotel suites, a rain forest, a mountain stream, a verdant valley, you’ll swear you’ve traveled back in time to the days when the earth was clean and green.”
“I have traveled back in time,” Shama said, knowing that no one in the stream of brown faces, dotted with a few colored pink, green, purple, and blue–Peoplecolor, Be the Color You Want to Be– was paying any attention to her. It felt good to be anonymous again.
A couple of slo-mo’s strolled past. Fastgrow users—they carried their long hair like shawls as they threaded their way through the lifters driving past on the crowded street.
A raven messenger bot, the service favored by drug dealers, flew by barely missing her ear. “Caw. Caw.”
The description, a dangerous land of extremes, ran through Shama’s head as she looked around at the LowCity residents, some wearing privacy suits that covered their whole bodies, while others wore next-to-nothing, just sandals, cut-off tops and shorts. She didn’t spot any danger. No fires or other Rebel activity. No sign of Nylon or Easypawn.
Nor any sign of Jeep or Mycia. It was too early for them to be in tele-school. They were probably out prowling the streets, hunting for left-over Flay to sell.
Above the jumble of commercials and voices of pedestrians, a band played on a long-range acoustic device. “Let the dreams. Oh, let the dreams come marching in.”
Stepping out onto 14th street, Shama found that a holoparade was headed her way.
A birthday cake with flaming trees, instead of candles, growing out of its broad chocolate top, led the parade. A sign floated above: Product Launch. Dream Hat. A camera for your dreams. The first one hundred purchasers will be automatically entered in our contest. Prizes include a 3-D Meg-lev trip to UpCity!
In the second dream, Shama recognized the man, dressed up as Santa, by his furry eyebrows and downturned smile. An unlikely Santa. Mildew Image, like all of the Godzillionaires who founded UpCity, was supposed to be tight-fisted.
A holobook titled, The Unlikeliest of Stars, too big for its tiny feet, waved its silver pages at the crowd.
A brown holorabir, upright on rodent legs, flapped its wings as it sprinted by. In one hand, it carried a bright blue, old-fashioned device for rain, labeled, umbrella.
Shama began to whistle, “When the dreams go marching in.”
The next dream was a pink furry animal. It wore a sign around his neck that said, My Pooky. With its large snout and glassy red eyes, My Pooky reminded Shama of a figure in a dream that might, at any moment, blur into a monster.
Past the parade on the other side of the street, Shama pulled back when she glimpsed a familiar figure.
Although Nylon wasn’t a small man, he had the slinky look of someone who could slip through the cracks in buildings or move close to a wall and disappear.
Right now, he was exiting the Old-Timey Café. Citizen Against Change Certified. Everything exactly like it was in 2050. He jabbed a toothpick between his teeth and turned to survey the parade. With one of his cheek implants flat, his face looked off-balance.
Shama dodged inside My Pooky, the holoanimal swallowing her completely. The hologram’s light was so pink that it made her head ache, but at least, no one could see her. Plus, even though Larm walked alongside, to passersby, a My Pooky with a hologuard as its bodyguard would be just someone’s weird dream.
Marching with the parade, Shama felt safe enough to sing along with the music chip, “I want to be in that number, when the dreams go marching in.”
When My Pooky stepped sideways, Shama had to scurry to keep up. When it turned the corner, she decided to risk a peek.
Shama’s eyes hadn’t adjusted to the natural light, but she recognized the green body of one of the seven holoStatues of Liberty that advertised Patriotic Holostatues and Souvenirs. Today was star-kissed, all right. The parade had led Shama to the store right across the street from her hut.
Shama bumped into someone.
The bright sunlight layered the woman, her black suit and its matching oxygen mask with a wavy intensity that left Shama blinking.
The woman stopped walking. She jerked her oxygen mask off and said, “Watch out,”
“You kids. You think—,” the woman muttered.
But when the woman spotted Larm, the hologuard’s official-looking uniform and mean eyebrows, her mouth snapped shut, and her head dipped down. Reattaching her oxygen mask, she hurried past.
Shama studied Larm.
“Maybe you are good for something.”
That’s when she noticed. The holowoman’s feet and ankles had turned red–the brightest red that Shama had ever seen. The red of that spooky eye color, Vampire’s Eyes. Even as she watched, the color seemed to be creeping up the hologuard’s legs. “Larm, what’s wrong?”
Larm kept its gaze straight ahead.
Shama backed into a space between the holoStatues of Liberty and searched the street. No sign of Nylon or Easypawn.
She could make out her own solar paneled roof. It was wedged between the two signs that marked the entrance. Poppers Radiant Laundry—No excuses. Get clean now–and the other for Road Kill Restaurant—Our mystery meat is tasty.
Crossing the street, Shama skirted a mass of black bubbles in the middle, the cybratom buckling from the heat. When she reached the sidewalk, she touched the squawker box 431,223 PROPERTY OF WORLD COUNCIL–TAMPERING IS A CRIMINAL OFFENSE–whose news broadcasts used to wake her in the middle of the night and hurried past Mystery Meat Restaurant’s ventilation pipe, where she breathed in a strong whiff of—curried dodo? Majong Plyer used curry to spice all his food. The dodo was just a guess. Once a fad purchase, dead and abandoned dodos were everywhere these days. The birds were notoriously dumb.
In front of Radiant Laundry, she held back so Poppers couldn’t spy her through the window. Shama was trying to make up her mind whether to enter the laundry through her own special entrance, when a man halted in front of the laundry’s barred door. Shama recognized Officer Dare the pesky tele-school truant officer. She bet he was stopping by to ask about Shama’s absences from teleschool. But on second-look, she sensed something else might be going on.
Officer Dare’s multi-colored uniform appeared brand-new, not wrinkled and faded like the ones he usually wore. Even from this distance, she could read the writing over his pocket: tele-school, an education you can trust. His normally frizzy brown hair was slicked back flat and neat against his head.
Shama ducked into her alley and peered out to listen.
“Don’t be a slob. Get clean now,” the microchip in the door barked.
Officer Dare pushed the button. “Julip, it’s me.”
Funny though, the officer’s voice sounded warm and fuzzy, not official.
The door buzzed, admitting him.
Hurrying down the alley, Shama dodged piles of trash, empty boxes of tramposhoes and dodo pellets, bottles of Peoplecolor and dirty take-out bags from Mystery Meat Restaurant, all disintegrating into a soggy biodegradable mess. But Shama felt relieved to be back in the real world. The stink of ozone was much better than the antiseptic smell of the Zone that stung her nose.
At the entrance to her hut, she leaned in close and pressed her ear to the warm metal. She whispered the nonsense sound key that her mother had taught her so long ago, “barblaforgee.”
The magnets in the high-tech lock clicked.
When she stepped inside, she smelled another familiar smell. Something that used to be alive was dead. Maybe a hypersteriod rat, one of those creatures that bounced around her hut at night, sometimes, landing on her stomach.
Although it was dark, she didn’t have to turn on her light to make out her
furnishings: a cot, the table, and the cooler. Or the hole in the wall of her hut that was
her secret entrance to the laundry. One of Popper’s radiators backed up to that hole. From inside the laundry, the entrance looked like any of the other thirty-six radiators, used to clean Breathe fabric, except for the yellow Under Repair sign hanging above, and the note written in Poppers’ blocked handwriting below: Don’t complain. Just take your business elsewhere!
Shama raised herself up and began crawling through the xiathium tunnel. On most days, she liked to have her own secret entrance. The washer’s blue color made it easy for her to imagine that she was floating in a clean sky. But today, the hologram crowded her, and she felt trapped inside the small space.
Shama reached the lid for the washer and dryer, an oval five times as large as her head. Gazing through the curvy cybratom at the laundry, she surveyed: the washer/drier units, the line of robotic attendants, Your clothes folded perfectly for twenty credit coins, and the red door that led to Poppers’ bedroom.
The old lady sat behind the counter in a plain chair. Shama saw three strange things. One: Poppers, who was deathly scared of robbers, wasn’t locked up in her personal security cage. Two: Poppers didn’t have her popper by her side. Her popper was a mechanical hand that she used to pop Shama whenever she disobeyed an order. Three: Poppers’ red lips were coated with shiny lipstick.
Shama couldn’t count the number of times she had heard Poppers brag about all the money she saved on lipstick by having her lips permanently dyed.
Officer Dare sat on a cyclestool that didn’t used to be there.
The curvy lid of the radiator distorted her view. She ignored Dare’s normally stocky body which had morphed into an hour-glass shape; she focused her gaze on Poppers’ red lips, squirming snakes. But she couldn’t figure out what Poppers was saying.
She took a chance and cracked the lid. It snapped when it opened. Shama drew back, but neither Dare nor Poppers glanced her way.
“I appreciate your help, Osol.”
Shama had never known Dare’s first name.
“So has anyone seen her?” Poppers asked.
“No,” Dare said.
Poppers’ lips wrinkled in disgust. “She has cost me so much money.”
As Osol Dare drove his cyclestool over to join Poppers behind the counter, Shama pushed down the lid and jumped onto the floor. She didn’t have to look to know that Larm towered beside her.
Both Poppers and Dare stared at her as if dumbstruck.
Poppers’ jaw hardened. “Where have you been, Shama?”
“Are you talking about me?” Shama asked.
“Answer my question.” Then to Officer Dare, Poppers said, “You notice how the girl questions me. So annoying.”
“Why are you just standing there, Shama?” Poppers said to Shama. “Gawking.
You’ve got more than your share of faults, but you’ve never been shy. Answer my question.”
Shama swallowed hard. If she got angry, she’d never learn anything from Poppers. “I came to tell you that I got in a school.” She paused. “A really great school.”
Dean Perbile had warned Shama: “Don’t speak to anybody. That’s a breach of security with serious consequences. And don’t say anything at all, not even a word about the Academy.”
Poppers rolled her eyes.
“If you don’t believe me,” Shama said, “where did I get this hologuard?”
“I’d like to take a look at that,” Officer Dare said. But first, he glanced at Poppers,
asking for permission to investigate.
Only after Poppers, The Queen of Everybody, nodded, did Officer Dare step closer to Larm.
Dare examined the insignia on the hologuard’s pocket. “Julip, it says Special Forces.”
“I go to a military school,” Shama explained. She felt proud of herself for keeping Chronos’ secret. But of course, the truth wasn’t an option. If she told Poppers that the Academy was a school for Travelers, Poppers would sneer and call her a “world council spy.” Or something worse.
Poppers lifted one thin eyebrow. “What kind of military school accepts truants?”
In front of Officer Dare, Shama couldn’t argue with this. The tele-school policeman knew that she had frequently skipped teleschool. “It’s a good school,” she said. “But the Dean needs me to fill out a form. It has a few questions… about my mother.”
Poppers’ eyes narrowed as Officer Dare backed into his place next to her.
“That Hologuards is bonded to Shama’s DNA, Julip,” Officer Dare said. “That kind of work is expensive.”
Poppers’ slimy red lips puckered. “But why Shama?”
Shama felt herself grinning. “I’m an advanced student.”
Both of Poppers’ skinny eyebrows flew upward. “Let me get this straight,” she said. “You don’t need to live with me anymore?”
“That’s right,” Shama said. “I have my own room. With all I want to eat.” She couldn’t resist adding, “Healthy foods and desserts.” Poppers’ favorite food was zero-calorie chocolate cake decorated with weight-loss jelly beans.
Watching Poppers lick her lips, Shama laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Poppers demanded.
“Nothing,” Shama said, trying to sound innocent. “I’ve been trying to tell you. To stay in the school, I need some information about Mama.”
Poppers sniffed as if to say, What’s in it for me?
“Just simple stuff,” Shama said. “Where did she come from? What school did she go to?”
“Why should I…?” Poppers began.
Dare broke in, “Where did Anna come from Julip?” He looked curiously at Poppers. “I never knew Anna’s background.”
Poppers was always careful not to wrinkle her skin, so Shama was surprised to see furrows grooving her landlady’s forehead.
“She must have gone to a good school,” Poppers said. “She always knew the answer to everything. She programmed my security system for me, handled all my repairs at the shop.”
Shama remembered that her mother could fix anything, but Perbile wanted facts. “Where was my mother born?”
“Where did she live before Flade Street?” Dare asked.
Poppers turned to Dare, answering his question, not Shama’s. “She never told me.” She paused and stared off into the distance. “She kept to herself. But she was the most… unusual woman I ever met.”
Shama heard respect in Poppers’ voice.
Dare rubbed his forehead. “But how did Anna Katooee come to live with you?”
Shama felt like someone or something was breathing down her neck. She was getting used to this reaction now, but not to the sorrowful, creepy feeling that went with it. She glanced over her shoulder. It was still early morning. As she expected, no one stood at the door.
“I had an older woman for a tenant,” Poppers said. “Her name was Gil.”
Shama broke in, “I remember an old lady who lived with us.”
“One day,” Poppers said. “I found out from Gil that your mother and you, a brand new baby, were living with her.”
Shama could imagine that day—the fuss Poppers would have made.
“At first, I objected because of the noise,” Poppers said as if reading her thoughts.
“I bet you did,” Shama said.
Her yellow and white curls did an angry dance on Poppers’ head. “What did you say, young lady?”
Grateful that Poppers was a little deaf, Shama said, “Please, tell me everything,”
Dare piped up. “I helped your mother get you admitted to teleschool, Shama.”
“What do you mean?” Shama said.
“You had an identity number but your mother didn’t even have a wand,” Dare stammered, “or anything…and that was required.” He shot a quick glance at Poppers to gauge whether he had angered her. Poppers was scowling all right, but her scowl was directed at Shama not at Dare.
“What did you do?” Shama said.
“I looked the other way.” Dare paused. “When your mother listed you as an orphan.”
“Enough of your questions, Shama,” Poppers said. “Tell me more about this school.”
“My school’s a secret,” Shama answered, realizing too late that she had aroused Popper’s curiosity. She began backing out.
“A secret!” Poppers pointed a skinny finger at Shama. “Osol, grab her.”
From long practice, Shama reached the door in a flash.
“But Julip,” Shama heard Osol Dare protest.
“Don’t Julip me. Stop that gi..rr..lll,” Poppers shouted.
Breaking one of Poppers’ favorite rules, Shama slammed the heavy door behind her. Extra hard!
With the door’s clang ringing in her ears, she scurried down the street.
She glanced back one last time at the sign. Poppers Radiant Laundry.