The rheumatism wasn't so bad these days, thanks to some of those new medicines they'd brought in from the core worlds. Eyesight was alright thanks to the old implant, mind was sharp as ever, and if his hands trembled a little at times, well, it was fall and the weather was cold.
He walked slowly down the streets of this city in space. The autumn leaves drifted in whorls around him, raked by cold gusts of wind. It always amazed him to see trees planted here, in a disconnected place where he could look out the window and see nothing but the stars of the sky; but then, they belonged no less here in this small globe of orbit than on any other globe in the galaxy. Old and withered, and losing their decoration with the encroaching winter. He was glad to have them here with him, old and withered too.
The winter, now, he didn't much look forward to. The weather engine did what it could, but proper snowstorms were out of the question. At most they would get a sloppy cold drizzle and some bitter frosts. Winter leeched all color out of the year.
It felt like they'd started to fade already. He ignored the little twinges from his aging joints and moved on to his daily place of refuge. In his youth, his own grandfather had told him about those pains: that they were little pecks from the black birds of the river, eating him up 'til there was nothing left but the souls, and that while he still felt their beaks piercing his flesh, it was proof he was still alive.
He smiled. The story had given him nightmares for days, about black birds of prey.
It was still early morning when he reached the cafe. He went here every day, part for breakfast and part to gently immerse himself in the rushing flow of life. One did not truly start dying, he felt, until one was left alone.
He took his usual seat in his usual booth, which was never occupied at this early hour, and glanced at the newsreader inset in the tabletop. It was possible to set the reader to broadcast upwards, casting a vertical holo that was akin to reading a real paper and didn't force you to keep your plate to one side, but he preferred it this way, burrowing over the news in his own little corner of the world.
The headlines were their usual grim and paranoid selves, so he switched over to articles about more local business. He'd always had an inquisitive mind, if a little overly lent to imagination, and had known even as a young man that the loudest news held the biggest lies. One needed to watch for the little signs instead: the leaves, and which way they were blowing.
The waitress, whose name was Joraa but whom he always called Madame, came up to him. She was in her middle age, but had the mind of a sassy youngster. He liked that, even more so because it likely bugged the hell out of everyone younger than her.
"Hey, old man," she said in a voice with an evenly balanced rasp and whine.
"Good morning, Madame," he said. "The same, please."
She gave him a smile, which was always nice, and headed off to get his breakfast.
He went back to the news and editorials. Breakfast wouldn't take long to arrive - they knew his usual schedule - but he would take his time in eating it, savoring the bites while he spent the long hours at the table. Only when he had read through everything in the day's edition, including the big screaming news, would he consider the day's meal to be done.
A plate of food appeared before him, and a cup of coffee joined it. He looked up to thank Joraa, saw her face and gasped.
For a brief, heart-stopping second he thought she was an angel. Her face was bathed in a gentle halo, like she was returning from a swim in the rays of the sun. It extended to her hair, which shimmered like radiant gossamers, and to the skin of her neck, whose gentle sway left a momentary streak of light in the air.
She stared back, first in alarm, then in bemusement. When she smiled, the parting of her lips revealed teeth that seemed overlaid with soft, warm diamonds.
"Are you alright, dear?" she said.
He nodded unblinkingly. "You look like a star," he said in wonderment.
"You need another cup of coffee, is what you need," she said, shaking her head to dislodge the compliment. She turned and walked away, and he could've sworn that the varicose veins in her calves glowed through her skin.
"There is nothing wrong with you," the voice said.
"Apart from the usual, you mean."
"Yes," the voice said. It came from a screen in his room at the medical quarters. On that screen was a nice, nonoffensive face that showed a calculated expression of aloof concern. It was no more real than the screen that projected it.
"So those halos I see around people, the ones that are everywhere now, those are just old man's talk?"
The A.I. did not blink on the monitor. "They are not measurable on any graph we have. Which is good news, because it rules out any number of dementias you might have been suffering from."
"Well, that's nice," he said. "So what is it?"
The A.I. was silent for a calculated moment. "I don't know," it said. "Most likely guess is that your implant is starting to malfunction, but the checks we ran on that back in the booth showed nothing out of the ordinary. I'm afraid I can not in good conscience underwrite an operation unless we know what it is we'd be fixing, nor can I approve a replacement. You can still see perfectly, I assume?"
"Yes. That, I can." The implant was old and had cost him a lot of money, but it had served its job for many years. As had he.
"Does the anomaly cause you significant discomfort?"
"Not really, truth be told. I don't mind a little extra glow in my life."
"Well, then," the A.I. said, flashing a brief smile. "That's nice."
More and more, the people he passed were enveloped in halos. Oddly enough, even though the altered visuals gave them more color and filling in life, he could swear it was also making them more transparent. Someone passed him by, and he saw not merely the person but the ground, walls and sky behind their glowing corpus.
He suspected the implant, which had saved his sight for all these years, was incorrectly refracting the light it received from certain objects. It was a complex piece of machinery, installed for a complex and unpleasant visual disorder he had greatly suffered from, and had a mind of its own. Chances were it was having some minor defect in displaying people in motion, or clothing, or skin, and compensating for it by showing instead the cached backgrounds it knew were there. It had to be something like that, because otherwise he was going quite mad, and he did not intend to head down that colorful route just yet.
He tried not to think about it too much. He'd long since grown used to people fading into the background, eventually to fade away altogether.
One morning later that week he was walking to the cafe when he noticed one man on the other side of the street, standing very still. When he glanced at the man, he found his stare returned.
"Hi there," the man said, and his voice carried across the street.
"Roten! As I live and breathe," he replied. "How are you, son?"
The man walked up and embraced him. They'd worked together on the station a long while ago, Roten under his mentorship in various electronic and mid-level tech work, but Roten had left on a freighter for parts unknown. They hadn't seen each other in years.
It disturbed him how strange Roten appeared. He wasn't any different from all the people who passed by in the rush of the day, grey visages now, but the old man never paid much attention to anyone. Roten, though, he wanted to see. He wanted to see that smiling pink face all covered in grime from a hydrogen battery repair gone explosively wrong; not this chromatic, polarized mask that seemed more at home on a robot. His translucent body was so full of refracted color and hue that the old man fancied he could see himself reflected, his wrinkled countenance trapped inside Roten's own corporeal form.
Roten walked with him to the cafe, chatting amiably, but it was clear that he wasn't staying long. He did not let on much about the reason he had arrived or his destination, but promised that this was not the last time the two would meet. "I'll be around," he said. "Just look for me."
"This damn implant keeps going the way it does, I won't be seeing you at all."
"I'm sure it'll be fine, one way or the other," Roten said. He shook the old man's hand and walked away, fading into the flurry of deepening autumn.
It was a pleasant coincidence, the old man thought, and gave him a warmth that lasted him through the long day.
The next morning, on the same early walk, that feeling turned to ice.
He saw an old man; not old in body as he himself might be, but a truly old one of spirit and soul. People spoke of age and the dumber ones said that age was merely a feeling - which, if it was, meant it was a feeling of dulled senses and sharp aches, and good luck to anyone trying keeping up a sprightly pretense - but there was a glimmer of truth in that cheerful idiocy. Some people were merely aged, and some were truly old.
This old man was named Fermar, and he was dead. He had to be. Never had a man been so close to the grave for so long of his natural life.
Fermar saw him, walked up and said hi.
"What on earth are you doing here?" the man answered.
Fermar gave a wry grin. "Hey there, boy."
"Last I knew you were working on a colony in deep space, near the Sansha. You crazy old coot. I thought you were long gone."
Fermar shrugged. "It worked out, in its fashion."
"Well, not to be inhospitable, but what are you doing here? Did you take a position somewhere else?"
"Who says I didn't just retire?" Fermar said to him.
"This one," he replied, pointing a wrinkled finger at his own old chest. "You're one of those people, Fermar, who keeps going right until the end. I can see right through you."
And he could. His friend's body was so transparent that it barely cast a shadow. Its outlines did not so much glow as faintly shimmer, like oil floating on water, and whatever colors remained in his face were multihued and iridescent. The old man made a mental note to revisit the A.I. doctor. He shouldn't have to suffer his friends to be invisible.
"Yeah, I guess I'll keep on forever," Fermar said. "But I'm glad to see you, boy." He seemed about to add something, then merely said, "Stay in touch," waved and walked off.
The old man, shaken, continued on to the café. He opened the door with hands that trembled a bit too much, and it wasn't until he felt the firm fabric of his old booth that he found any kind of calm. The seat was there, in all the ways that a simple seat could be.
He sat there staring into empty space, murmuring his thoughts. Roten's appearance had been a godsgift, and a believable one at that, but Fermar's felt more like a warning.
All those years ago, when they parted, he had been certain he'd never see Fermar again. The man had lived through a Sansha invasion on his colony, had a hand in a rebellion that had saved many but cost him his daughter and eventually torn apart his marriage. He had drifted from job to job before eventually settling as a supervisor on another mining colony precariously close to Sansha space. Whatever had been in Fermar's mind at that time - revenge, exhaustion, madness or whatever else - he had not laid down these last bricks in the road of his life to lead anywhere but into the open arms of death.
The specter of Madame Joraa came along. "You really do talk to yourself a lot, don't you, hon?" she said.
He smiled at her. "Glad to see you're still here."
"Of course I am. Who else is going to take care of your needs?" she said, winked at him and walked off.
He grinned at this and looked down at the vidscreen in the table. When he looked up again, his heart stopped.
Across from him, sitting quite calmly in the opposing seat, was another ghostly person. He could see right through her, to the booth with its metal rails and synthetic, faux-leather that never seemed to fade with age.
He said, in a brittle voice, "Oh dear."
She leaned her head to one side and said, "Is that any way to treat an old friend?"
He leaned back in his seat, rubbed his eyes and sighed deeply. "I'm so sorry," he said, eyes still shut. "Hello, Charlize. You're looking very well. Are you dead?"
She caught her breath, then started to laugh, that gentle scale of sonorous notes he had once thought would be the soundtrack to his life. "We certainly are morbid! How are you doing? I've missed you."
"Likewise, Charlize," he said. "I thought you were gone for good."
"I was," she said, and he opened his eyes at last. She was smiling with infinite sadness.
"Hang on, I'll order you a coffee at the very least," he said and raised his hands, calling for Madame. She was cleaning a table a few booths down, but no matter how much he hailed, she didn't respond.
He turned back to Charlize, flustered and a little alarmed. "Why can't I get her attention?"
"I'll tell you in a second, dear," the old woman said, taking his hand in hers. "Let's just keep talking for now. I have a lot to tell you."