A filthy haze blanketed the block. Flames sprang from the squat idearoom, and the black smoke formed a message: “Burn President Honestloyalkind.”
“Closed for Lack of Funding,” read the sign on the double barbed-wire entrance to the idearoom where Shama used to watch teleschool. Thank Flade! Jeep and Mycia couldn’t be trapped inside.
To get a better view, Shama pushed her way through rows of people, four or so deep, who stood around sweating and gawking.
“An idearoom! Those Rebels are brutes,” a man wearing the bluish-white uniform of a water factory worker shouted.
“Well, I’m no Rebel, but I agree with one thing. Why does LowCity broil while in UpCity everyone is so cold they want to wear socks?” another man piped up. Like all of his companions, he wore white sandals.
“I’m glad the Rebels aren’t afraid to stand up to the W.C.,” a third chimed in. “We need to make them understand that real people live on earth. Not holograms.”
“Hush,” a fourth man said. “They’re listening.”
All the men quieted at this and stared gloomily at the flames.
As if this were a harmless bonfire, a couple of Flayheads danced past Shama.
Likewise, a flock of dodos, pawed the trash in the yard. These birds were so dumb they didn’t seem to notice the fire or the fact that they were covered in soot.
Father Urebe of the Spiritual Environmental Church, dressed in desert camo from boot to cap, shouted at the crowd from a stump, his traveling pulpit, “Those who fear Your name, small and great.” He pointed an accusing finger upward. “Should destroy those who destroy the earth.”
Through the smoky haze, Shama spotted Big Alize, Juantin’ George and Lasy Sasa, all high orange, the color of the Rapid Robot gang.
Shama rushed up to them. “Have you seen Jeep or Mycia?”
Big Alize studied her. Standing a meter taller than the others, she had drunk so much Peoplecolor that even her short, pointy teeth were pumpkin orange. With broad shoulders and thick thighs, the girl was husky, but she didn’t look that strong.
Even so, Shama doubted whether Liberty would take her in a fight. On Flade Street, fair fights were rarer than Instant Trees.
Big Alize wore a tool kit of weapons around her orange neck ridged with sweaty folds. “If it isn’t Shama,” she jeered. “Looking for her friends.”
Lasy Sasa stepped forward. “I’ve never seen that color before.” She added, “What product do you use for your eyes?”
Lasy had purple eyes, from Eyecolor–Whatever color you want your eyes to be– tinged with a red that Shama guessed was natural.
“They changed color, when I went back in time,” Shama said, truthfully.
Big Alize laughed. “Won’t share your beauty secrets, huh?”
Jauntin’ George snorted. “Beauty secrets? Her eyes are pee.”
Shama glanced at his greasy skin and bruised lips. She fought the urge to say, You’re not so beautiful either.
“Stop staring at me.” Jauntin George edged toward Shama.
“Cut it out, Jauntin,” Big Alize said. She pointed at Larm. “Who’s that?”
“That’s a Larm,” Shama said. The red reached the holoalarm’s chin, and Larm, his uniform no longer blue, looked as if it were boiling in purple oil.
“For your sake, I hoped the holowoman was your bodyguard.” Big Alize smiled a toothy orange grin that managed not to look even the least bit friendly. “Cuz Nylon’s lookin for you.”
“It is my bodyguard.” Under her breath, Shama muttered, “Ha!” as she took a quick step backward. When she ducked into a group of water factory workers–We make the cleanest water in either world– Big Alize’s disembodied voice called out, “Stop, Shama.” When Shama didn’t answer, Big Alize shouted, “Do you hear me?”
Shama kept on. Clutching her necklace, she wandered through the smoky haze searching for shapes that resembled Jeep’s spiky hair or Mycia’s face with its shapeless nose, but no luck.
A scruffy-looking beggar thrust an empty chip bag into Shama’s face. His hands were tattooed with a bright red plea: Really hungry. PLEEZ HELP!
As Shama pushed the bag away, a burst of wind cut a path through the gray smoke. A lifter banana model 2097 was landing on the nearby street.
The lifter’s yellow body with its angled wind vents stood out against the haze. The yellow color looked so happy and playful that for a moment, she forgot about her problems, and she just gawked. Then, she noticed the man, and the girl arguing on the nearby street.
Taller than Shama, Mycia kept her long hair blue. She was born with a twisted hand, but her sideways nose was a gift from her father. Always short of funds, Mycia had sold most of her skin to advertisers. Her body ads: Peoplecolor. Be the Color you want to be. Fastgrow. One sip and you’ll step on your hair. Hire Holomessengers—Real Quality.
Nylon raised his fist. He wore his privacy hood pushed back to reveal his flattened cheek. His outfit was slick and new-looking.
Mycia shielded herself with her good hand. “Leave me alone. I told you. I’m sure she’s here. She always comes to fires.”
Shama stepped sideways to stay hidden. The smoky haze burned her lungs and stung her eyes. Her heart was racing. She searched for Jeep. Jeep weighed twice as much as Shama. Together, the two of them might be able to fight off Nylon.
“I know she’s here,” Nylon snarled. “Everybody and their dodo has seen her. She’s got some kind of holomonster with her.”
Shama snickered under her breath. Larm—a holomonster.
With the wind dying away, the smoke spilled over onto the path again and enveloped Nylon and Mycia in a black cloud.
“I haven’t seen her….” Mycia cried.
Shama burst through the smoke to face them.
As Nylon turned toward Shama, Mycia managed to yank out of his grasp.
Shama watched Mycia disappear into a group of water factory workers. She felt the urge to run away, too. But she decided to give Mycia a few more seconds of cover.
“Ah, Shama,” Nylon said. His raised voice sounded casual, reasonable. “Crunchy to see you.”
There was a bulge in Nylon’s pocket.
As Nylon’s fingers slid down his side, reaching for his gun, out of the corner of her eye, Shama noticed Larm’s head and neck bloom red. Bright red. It opened its mouth.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
The sound coming from the hologuard’s mouth was more urgent than anything than Shama had ever heard before—throw yourself off the side of an UpCity urgent. Total universe destruction urgent. A pained expression crossed Nylon’s face, and in that second, Shama darted away.
“I’ll be back,” Shama yelled, just in case Mycia could hear her over Larm’s roar.
The Zone in the Future
“We just completed a DNA trace on the girl,” Xt 3 P said.
When the Lieutenant’s slatted eyes dodged Barb’s gaze, something inside of Barb twisted. His father had chosen a strong verb for his son’s first name, Barb, a name that others would fear, but now he felt as if he had been jabbed himself.
In a rush, Xt spilled the real news, “Her mother was Sergeant Anna Ka 2 E.”
A shiver ran up Barb’s spine, and Barb found himself craning his neck to make sure they were alone in the room. “Anna Ka 2 E,” he repeated dully, as another round of shivers shook him.
Your old girlfriend.
Barb registered Xt’s accidental thoughttransmission. It was unassisted by a communication device. Thus, without personality or voice tone.
Xt cleared his throat to cover his embarrassment.
As if the Sergeant had belched or farted, courtesy dictated that Barb ignore the breach. Xt continued his report, “Sergeant Ka 2 E faked her suicide.”
Barb should have known.
But it wasn’t his job to order an investigation into every suicide in UpCity. The Citizen’s Internal Surveillance committee had jurisdiction over local deaths, whether civilian or not. He was under no obligation. Not at all.
“Barring something unexpected, we should have the daughter under surveillance within the hour,” Xt said.
As he had been trained, Barb made sure to put a mental lid on his thoughts to keep them in the private mode before he allowed himself to consider the meaning of Xt’s words.
The daughter. My daughter?
“Do you want me to give you a briefing in private?” Xt said.
I don’t understand. But it must be. Of course, Xt knows. They all know by now.
“Show me what you’ve got,” Barb said, careful to stay in Nonchalance.
“Of course, the routine surveillance cameras picked up the fake suicide,” Xt said. “I had to go to the satellite cameras to construct the whole story.”
Even as Barb nodded, a gray mass swirled on the glass wall in front of him.
The cloud, was not so much a cloud, as a gaseous octopus. Its tentacles poked inside the line of lifter homes, twined between the branches of Instant Trees, and slid underneath the closed doors of buildings.
A squawker announced: “Poor visibility. High winds. Avoid accidents. Stay home tonight.”
A woman appeared in the heavy fog wearing a backpack. She looked light-footed.
A sound, a rapid, pat, pat.
A driver of a taxi-boat, wearing black pants and a straw hat with a red band,
paddled toward her.
The woman stood her ground. Although her full-length privacy suit concealed almost everything, Barb recognized her golden eyes.
As the driver passed Anna, his long pole punched the air to stay inside the fog that wound around like fast-moving currents of milk.
The wind gusted, and the leaves on an advertisement tree tinkled noisily. Passing
underneath the ad tree’s colorful shade, shards of brilliant color scaled Anna’s body.
When Anna reached a chest-high wall gleaming black in the diminished light, she
dropped her backpack and pulled a dummy out onto the cybratom sidewalk. Anna and her dummy wore matching black outfits.
When Anna pressed her foot on the pump,its legs stretched until they were almost as
long and thin as hers. Next, air rushed into the dummy’s stomach and blew it up to be as fat and round as her own.
When the dummy was fully inflated, Anna leaned it against the wall, facing
In a burst of what appeared to be anger, Anna hefted the figure awkwardly onto her shoulder. Summoning all her strength, she cast the dummy over the spiked UpCity wall.
With no gravitational net to stay its fall, Anna peered down and watched as the creature with its white hair streaming, plummeted. Through the cloud cover, the dummy’s watery destination, the dark ocean, stared up at her.
Breathing deeply, Anna gazed at a thin box that she held in the palm of her hand. A transmitter. Barb identified it as the new high frequency model.
Anna was humming.
Barb recognized her song. “Let the trees, the grass, the lakes return.”A booth of gray meta-material shot up, surrounding her.
Then, the spot where she had stood was indistinguishable from the gray night. Anna was gone.