As I pull my chin above the metal bar for exactly the seventieth time, a tiny sliver of pain begins to curl its way up the back of my head.
Shadows. Darkness at my periphery. It’s starting again, then. I briefly wonder if I’ll be able to finish my set before I’m overwhelmed. Seventy-seven, seventy-eight. The sweat feels cold on the back of my neck. Eighty-nine, ninety. More shadows. I release the bar and drop softly to the mat. Enough energy expended for now.
As has become my ritual, I go over to the window and open it. The breeze off the river brings a cavalcade of smells. Its insistent whisper tells of unwholesome pleasures, of deadly spices, banned music, sinful screams behind shuttered glass. This is that kind of neighborhood, I guess, though you’d never know it from walking here in broad daylight.
The laser-carved chrome pillars toothing the maw between second- and third-floor porches glint in the twilight as the neighborhood prepares for its nightly shift change. Boost vendors and feedbots desert the streets, replaced by uploaders and trikes. The sun begins its dive behind the mountains, leaving only a pinkish stain in the sky. The shadows in my head, as if emboldened by their literal brothers snaking out of every crevice, start ramping up their attack. Just a few minutes now. I take a deep breath, grit my teeth, and begin pacing my circle. Gonna be a long hour.
Sixty-seven minutes later I take a look at my watch and realize I’m late for class. Striding across my wood-paneled loft, satisfied at my indifference to the splinters lodging themselves in my bare feet, I grab my coat and my pad. Shoes, then hat. Dentcard, shades, check. Out of here.
Downstairs in the last of the fading twilight I see Big Orphus huddled in the chipped wooden door frame, trying to light the rolled bundle of leaves clutched between his purple lips. I throw a greeting his way. He doesn’t respond, but that’s to be expected: Orphus only talks when the moon is right.
Making my way down Baillard Avenue, I’m greeted with familiar sights. Peregrix district, this small stretch of Caille that runs from Baillard in the east over to Crystal in the west, isn’t a dangerous zone, even though many people of questionable persuasion call the place home. It’s just that they’re all too busy doing legitimate business to waste their time hurting anyone.
Peregrix is one of the few places left in the city where dupe boosters can still be legally sold. Six years ago, the city council passed a law requiring all newly registered chemical compounds to undergo a four-month noncommercial vetting process to keep them off the streets.
Peregrix’s high concentration of formerly enslaved Intaki and Brutor immigrants—many of whom have severe respiratory illnesses from their days spent in toxic environments—allows it exemption from the rules, meaning we always have the latest quasi-crash or protodrop, stuff that’s so new it hasn’t had time to become illegal yet. Thus it is that due to the blessed combination of welfare state and enterprising basement chemists out for quick cash, we can be howling at the rafters all day and no one can stop us. Praise democracy.
I’m through with the hard stuff, though. That whole thing’s run its course for me. Used to be I’d hang off the balcony at Surio Grande every weekend, suspended in monofilament, showering the dancers with lace blossom and feeling the universe breathe through me, but that got old as gold eventually. The mind adapts. The times change. Movements come and go, swept along on neon-lit currents of cultural flux. The multicolored whirl of the present becomes the good old days, replaced by black-and-white repetition, repackaged versions of the real. And always around the corner, lying in wait, is the next thing, the it thing, tendrils of novelty outstretched and ready to catch you in their thankfully diverting embrace.
Light rain renders the streetlights as fuzz as I walk along concrete turned pitch black by the fumes of a million hover strollers. I pass Happy Adrian’s, and on my left is the usual group of root suckers sprawled over the steps of the crumbling cathedral that houses their organization.
Adrian Moncel, their lord and master, founded their quasi-religion half a year ago, based on the mystical properties of a hallucinogenic root that grows in the mountains west of the city. Soon enough he’d gathered a following through shiny promises, all the usual: spiritual enlightenment, freedom from earthly constraints, a One True Path to follow. Of course, all they ever do is sit around and chew on their root. Occasionally one of them will wander off the cathedral grounds and get hit by something fast moving. They’re easily recognizable by their tilting heads and beatific smiles, their teeth stained the dark green of ancient mint. I briefly toyed with joining them once, but there was just so much going on that week.
When I step into the foyer of UoC 3-18-8, the small building that houses the University of Caille’s Peregrix subcampus, that familiar antiseptic nanodrone smell creeps into my nostrils. I make my way to chamber 12, shoes scraping over tattered linoleum, and I plant myself in one of the seats. The class is underway already, but no one pays me much heed as I slink inside.
Today’s module is federation history. Yesterday’s was common robotics. Tomorrow’s will be something else, I forget. Maybe hydrostatics, maybe interstellar law. I like variety. Variety keeps me sane. Thank goodness the UoC lets us study whatever we want. None of this mandated degree stuff, this packaged crap you get with all the other colleges. I’m pretty sure this is why the UoC is the foremost educational institution in our dear old federation.
So I learn a number of things about how Caille became the cornerstone of civilization in the days of the Garoun Empire. How we invented methods of paper production unrivaled anywhere else at the time. How the Garounians were so fascinated by our culture that they didn’t so much conquer us as copy us. How the city’s location made it a port of call for refugees and immigrants from absolutely everywhere. I already know all this, but I learn it again, and I love my city more than ever.
Back on the street. The rain is pounding down now. Colors, signs, pictures, madness everywhere. A garishly colored Alhoiur hound, limbs malfunctioning, beckons me into a crummy arcade-slash-brothel-slash-gift shop. A gigantic hologram from Quafe Company Ltd. displays an animated narrative of what my life will be like if I switch to Ultra. Commercial choirs scream from swirling rooftops. Consciousness blinks in the artificial twilight. Masterless robots dance for change. My attention yields to the highest bidder.
Someone bumps my shoulder, muttering an obscenity in an Intaki dialect. Probably thinks I’m just your flat-variety homebred, inwardly looking down on the ’Takis while outwardly preaching lofty principles of tolerance for all. I feel a sudden violent urge to tell him how deeply that’s not the case; how I lived with an Intaki family back when the exchange program was still viable, how I skydived off the cliffs of his home world surrounded by my ’Taki friends, how the Idama’s words resounded in my mind when I read them under a maroon Poitot dome. By the time the sentence forms he’s vanished, though—an angry shadow passing into the electric night.
I feel uneasy about it, so I instruct my pad to play me a speech from one of the Idama’s disciples, whose name I forget because at the time I recorded it I was on the tenth hour of a superhealthy drop variant that was making the rounds last year.
A heavily Intaki-inflected voice fills my ears. “Experience is best defined by internal stimuli rather than external. Internal stimuli should be used as a ground for the vagaries of the outside to sit upon and be contextualized, rather than as a hammer to smash against that which you cannot control.
Never let external stimuli overtake innate feeling. Let perception and instinct roam free in the grasslands of your mind, never colliding but always working together.” The clip ends, the voice vanishes, and I’m comforted again, just like always. Every time I hear that speech I get a touch of that deep assurance—that insight, right—and suddenly I feel as if I know where everything’s going. I mean, everything’s going somewhere, right?
I swim through the shining lights, past these avenues of hope and disgust, past junkies and artists, past happy and disaffected and everywhere in between, and I arrive at my circle’s current joint, the Scalding Blue. Its outside decorated only with a constantly shifting, red-blue holographic swirl that circumscribes the oval-shaped doorway, the Blue is home to the freakiest of the freaks, the extremists of a land where everyone is an extremist. The second I pass the doorway, I’m greeted with the musical cheers reserved for only a very particular kind of victor over life. Oh, they love me in here. I’ve tried it all.
There they are, my beautiful posse. Drunkards and daredevils, lowlifes and libertines, every single aspect of human being you could ever wish for taken to the limit, all of them huddled together in a smoke-filled space, feeling the thunderous city vibrate around them.
Midway through our festivities, I start to kind of feel it again. More shadows. I don’t want to have an episode right here— they hate it when I have an episode—so I slink off into the bathroom, sit there shaking for forty minutes, have the whole utter-panic-combined-with-splitting-headache combo, bang my head against the stall, almost have some people bust in on me thinking I’m two guys beating each other up when really I’m one guy beating himself up. And then, just as quickly as it began, it’s over. And I’m myself again. I splash my face, I look at myself in the mirror and utter a small Intaki affirmation, and then I dance confidently on out to my seasoned friends, pretending that what just happened was nothing but another part of the plan.
Beyond the wall it breathes, this endless emerald city.
So we’ve been there sixty, ninety minutes, I don’t know. Liquids have been poured, truths have been spilled. And all of a sudden I see this fella by the bar, and he’s really the different sort. I mean, we get Civires in here every once in a while, quietly huffing and puffing, thinking they’re being very subtle about how goddamned superior they feel, and they’re always a good source of amusement. This guy, though. This guy’s different. There’s a . . . I don’t even know what I’d call it. Nobility? Nah. Dignity, maybe. Dignity mixed with something else. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually seen this particular characteristic in any living person.
Anyway, whatever it is, it surrounds the guy like an aura, right, so being in my mildly skewed state and thirsting for a totally new experience, I grab my drink and head on over. He doesn’t acknowledge me as I sidle up next to him, but from the very first moment there’s never a doubt in my mind that he knows I’m there. I don’t know if he moved his shoulders slightly or what it was, but from the moment my arm touches the bar counter, it’s perfectly clear to me that he not only knows I’m there, but that he probably has something of an idea of who I am and even why I came over.
I give it the requisite tactical three seconds. Then, in my best conversational, easy-for-foreigners-to-understand tone, I go:
“New in the Emerald?”
“Sure,” he answers.
“Came to the right place, man! Want to see the Caille dance for all it is, Blue’s the joint.”
He’s noncommittal. “I’ve been here a while,” he says. “Nice place.” I can’t tell if there’s a toying insult in that last bit, but I completely ignore the possibility anyway, because that’s just the way we do it here.
“So, uh . . . what brings you over to our little city?”
He casts me a sidelong glance. In my mind, I see it as a gesture of disappointment, like he’s expecting more from me somehow. Not really sure what he expects; we’re all just partying, anyway, and he must be able to guess that I’m tolerant. I mean, I’m from here.
“I’m a musician. I’m on tour with some people,” he says.
“Oh, really? What’s your thing?” My curiosity is piqued. What kind of instrument does a fellow like this play?
“I play the suraiiko,” he says.
I go a bit crazy. I mean, suraiiko playing is absolutely the most mind-thrashingly difficult thing you can do; the amount of training suraikanists go through just to be able to play that little drum properly is nothing short of insane. If you’re ever lucky enough to meet one, you just have to pick their brains.
“Suraiiko?! Damn! Let me buy you a drink!” I do so. Then I proceed, over the course of the next fifteen minutes, to question him in what I can only consider, in retrospect, to be a completely banal, novice way of questioning someone who knows far more than you do about the subject in question. I am vaguely conscious of this throughout the conversation, but I willfully wrest out absolutely all of my charm, and at points it almost feels as if I succeed, almost feels as if I’ve made some connection.
There’s always that distance with him, though, this dry wind blowing through our conversation, chilling our discourse so that nothing we say can reach any level of friendly warmth. No surprises there, though. I don’t think I’ve ever personally met a Civire who doesn’t have that element. And I’ve totally met over ten of them. I’m not sure what it is. They’re always a step apart from you, and I don’t even know in what direction. I just can’t figure it.
About fifteen minutes in, as he’s telling me about the philosophical underpinnings of suraiiko rhythms and the regimented discipline required to play them properly, I feel a sudden powerful sympathy for his plight, and feeling that maybe we’re having a real conversation at last, I blurt out:
“Isn’t that so stifling, though?”
He stops talking and raises his eyebrows. His eyes don’t move from his glass.
“Don’t you wanna keep some options open?” I continue. “Be able to go different places and do different things? I mean, how do you know you’re not missing something somewhere else right at this very moment? How can you limit yourself from the rest of all this wonderful madness?”
He looks straight forward at the back bar for a few seconds, like he’s pondering whether to reply or not. Then he finishes his drink. Staring into his empty glass, he says:
“Choosing a single road doesn’t mean you’re not free to move around within that road. It just means you know what you’re doing and where you’re going, and that you can make a difference within the sphere you choose.”
“Yeah,” I say, “but there’s so many things to do. Things to see, things to explore, things to teach people.”
For the first time since I started the conversation, he looks me dead in the eye. In his gaze are steel jackhammers, quiet vengeance, a hundred thousand orbital bombs frozen in still life.
“If the water stopped at every fork,” he says, “how would the river flow?”
I laugh. I look at him and I’m gonna say something really clever but somehow nothing comes out. For lack of something better to do, I laugh again.
He’s back to looking at his glass.
I buy him a final drink, I shake his hand, and I make my way back to my table. I mean, it was a good conversation, interesting fellow and all . . . but I have friends to attend to, and anyway I’m kind of starting to feel those shadows again.