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Candles in the Shadow Market
I saw a man walk off the edge of the Galleria once. I don't know if he was high, drunk, sick or just tired of living, but I happened to be looking up when he did it. I saw that he didn't hesitate from one step to the next, and this makes me think that he was probably drugged, because the kind of nerve it takes to confront your own death without flinching is rarely found in the suicidal.
He struggled when he fell, though, when it no longer mattered. Strange to think that he was a dead man still encased in living flesh. I wondered if he was afraid, if he had time to come to peace with himself as he fell. I watched his body tumble past the glittering spans of the Galleria bridges, past the rows of shops terraced down the walls. Some of the shoppers looked around in amazement, but most didn't notice, for he fell in silence and, it seemed, in dreamlike slowness. I knew I couldn't help him, and that it wouldn't help to scream, so I just watched. I kept wishing he'd hit one of the bridges so he wouldn't fall in front of me and I wouldn't have to see the moment when his struggling body went soft, limp, still.
But he didn't die. He fell ten stories or more, hit the tearproof canopy of the booth next to mine with a sound like a hand smacking wet cement, tumbled a few times and plowed into the crowd of children clustered in front of my face-painting stand. One little boy's head was driven into the rock so hard I heard something give way with a wet pop. People were screaming now, parents and children alike, the lucky and the hurt and the terrified. Someone tried to scramble into my booth to get away from the panicked crowd, breaking a support post that it took me two weeks to replace. At the time, I didn't even notice. I was staring at the body of the man, in the middle of that soft cradle of twisted little bodies, as he stirred and raised his head. He wasn't dead. God help him.
Ripples of hysteria began to spread across the floor of the Galleria, infecting people who had no idea what had happened, only that something
had -- a mugging? Gas leak? Had something escaped from the Zoo? But the Galleria Merchants Association was already there, calming the panic before the floor of the crater erupted into a mob, descending upon the man still blinking in a stunned calm as parents tried to claw over his body to reach their dead or dying children. In moments, the spot in front of my booth was scrubbed clean, offended shoppers were given their refunds or dry-cleaning payments, parents of casualties were having their payoffs negotiated. Free enterprise at work. Nice to see our protection money isn't wasted.
I sometimes wonder if I should have screamed, rather than standing there all calm and jaded -- if any of those kids and their parents might have looked up and seen death falling towards them. Maybe they would have moved out of the way. More likely, they would have stared at me in shock and died anyhow.
I've seen people die before and since, but it's strange how my mind tends to go back to that day ... particularly when I'm coming off a Fringe high, when past, present and future all tangle up into a golden delusion of immortality. I can see the future when I'm high. I mean, I believe
I can see the future. I've heard it's a common effect. Depends on what part of your brain the little beasties nibble on before they die. But the future always looks like the past, and so any death that you've ever seen can look like your own.
I saw my own death on that day, and I didn't like it. I wished someone would stop at my booth to distract me, but business was poor that year, with the recession all over town. It hit the Galleria easier than some, what with all the offworld business we get. But a lot of the smaller vendors like me, who cater mostly to local folks, were scrabbling to pay their booth fees ... and forget about buying food. I'd dropped my last week's profit on a good culture of Fringe. Extravagant, I know, especially since you can just drop a few tokens for a cable and find a power supply if you want a cheap way to ecstasy. But I like the clarity of Fringe, the way the world looks as if it's made of crystal and light. It's a nice feeling and more subtle, more traditional if you want, than a shock to the pleasure centers of the brain.
All around me, the Galleria was settling into an artificial dusk. As the lights of the city went down, the mock streetlights and glittering holos began to transform the marketplace into a wonderland, a carnival by night. All the attractions of a circus and a red light district after the sun goes down, under one dome. In my present condition, all the lights had green halos that trailed gloriously when I turned my head.
"Twenty-two hundred and all's well," said the voice of the city computer, Loki, calling the hour from my small screen under the counter. We always think it's amusing to name our creations, our cities, our planets, after deities from dead religions. There's a kind of arrogance to that, a kind of -- what was that word the Greeks used? Hubris.
I reached under to check my credit rating and see if any of the restaurants would send around takeout on month-deferred. Most of them had long since put me on debit. But I still had credit at Margy's, I found, and the vat hasn't been built that can produce something Margy's can't cook, even if "Margy" is actually a 50-year-old guy named Ron. I ordered a pickled steak and fried cube-apple -- why buy cheap when you're paying on credit? I also checked to make sure I hadn't ordered from them in the last few minutes. Nice thing about Fringe is it doesn't mess up your thought processes when you're high -- your judgment isn't impaired, and you're as capable of driving a vehicle as you ever were. Screws the hell out of your short-term memory, though. One of the things they tell you to watch for in Fringe addicts is habitual, repeated movements: picking up a glass of water and putting it down fifty times during a conversation, smoothing a wrinkle long since flattened, saying the same thing over and over with little breaks between.
As it happened, I had ordered the same meal not ten minutes before, so I canceled the second order and typed a little memo to myself at the corner of the screen. There were a couple other memos there, which I read: Paid booth fees this morning, so don't do it again. Morphine stopped by, says he'll come back when I close.
Closing -- that reminded me, what time was it? The Galleria was already growing dark. I checked the time display on the screen -- 22:02 -- and got up to close shop.
I was furling the candy-colored curtains and collapsing the balloons when someone cleared their throat softly behind me. I turned, one hand slipping beneath my sash for the small poison needler I always carry, but my fingers fell away when I saw who it was.
"Morphine! Damn, it's good to see you, kid! It's been ages."
"This morning actually," he said with an off-kilter smile, "but you're Fringing, so you wouldn't remember that."
How do I explain Morphine? He's the sweetest person I know, but I wouldn't let him near the good silver -- if I had anything worth stealing, that is. At one point or another in his life, he's tried probably every fashion fad in the known universe, and as a result his body (the visible parts, anyhow) are riddled with tribal tattoos, piercings, sockets for cables, rivets, amputation and graft scars, chemical burns, and animal bites. He's had cats' eyes and a tail ever since I met him, but the glow-in-the-dark patch of skin on the back of his left hand is pretty new. He can't be more than about sixteen. Sometimes I imagine him as an old man of a hundred and fifty, rambling to his great-great-great-grandkids: "Back in MY day, we flayed our flesh to the bone like civilized human beings, not like you crazy kids today..."
"Are you closed, Mel?" Morphine said.
"Got time for one more customer?"
"Who -- you?"
"I want a good paint job. Get the girls, you know."
"I'm not a miracle worker, kid."
Morphine winced. "Harsh, Mama."
"Let me finish up."
He helped me, putting things away, tidying and sweeping a duststicky across the counter. I've known Morphine since he was a little kid dancing for tokens in the marketplace. He dances beautifully, and even the jaded Galleria patrons throw coins to him. I have seen zero-gee dancers on the space stations where the wealthy live, pirouetting dream-slow through rippling colored scarves inside their clear plastic bubbles. I wish I could have given Morphine the money to go to a real academy. He's too old now. If he still dances, it is only for his own amusement.
A delivery cart from Margy's hummed by and stopped at my booth. "You order something?" I asked Morphine.
"No, but if you're Fringing, you might've," he said.
The chit was made out to me, so I guess I did. Hopefully I only ordered once. I took the tray off the cart and it thanked me and trundled away into the neon dusk.
"You can eat first, you wanna," Morphine said.
"Eat first before what?" I said, a spoonful of cube-apple halfway to my mouth.
"Before you paint me."
"Who said I was going to paint you? I'm closed."
"You said so. You're Fringing, so take my word for it."
"Next you'll tell me you already paid me," I grumbled, sitting on my countertop with the tray in my lap. Everybody likes to yank around a Fringer. That's why we don't often let on when we're high.
"Yep. I did." He looked at me earnestly, and I hesitated. How the hell could I prove he hadn't? Then he grinned. "No. I'm lying."
I glared at him. "Mess with an old woman, you little brat..." I balanced the tray in one hand while reaching automatically for the jack-reader with the other. "Next you're going to tell me you ain't got cred--" I stopped, in midsentence and midbite, the cord of the jack-reader dangling limply with my hand halfway held out.
"Aw, shit. Sorry, Morph. Habit."
Morphine shrugged, smiling to show me he wasn't upset at my gaff. "You're not a Shadow. We don't mind."
And that hurt somehow, stung deep enough that I still remembered it when I'd finished eating -- or maybe that just meant the Fringe was wearing off. But dammit, he shouldn't have said that to me.
So you want to be a Shadow?
I asked myself. And I couldn't come up with an answer.
I had slipped slowly into the Shadows' world. I was never really an up-and-up businesswoman -- few are, in the Galleria, which is also sometimes called the Shadow Market -- but there had been a time when the tokens and barter items crossed my counter infrequently, and the credit plug got a lot more traffic than it did now. These days, I suppose I was more Shadow than not. I knew I could live for weeks or months without ever plugging into the computer -- if I had to. I don't think I would do it voluntarily. In another ten years, who knows.
It was different for people like Morphine, who'd never had a VR jack or a number, probably never even had a genoscan in his life.
He just smiled, and sat on the customers' chair, dustcover and all, watching me eat.
Weird kid. A little wild, a little bit fey, as an earlier generation might have called him.
"Have I asked you if you want something to eat? I can't finish all this."
"Well, if you don't want it..."
"I was just going to throw it away."
He took the tray from my hands with nimble, tattooed fingers and ate, quickly, hungrily. Damn ... the poor kid would have just sat there and watched me finish every bite, never speaking, never complaining. It isn't chivalry, it isn't compassion, it's just a sort of obstinate pigheadedness. All Shadows are that way a little bit.
Most of the Shadows I've known have something primitive about them. They look backwards a little too much. They would have been the cavemen in skins, watching their brethren dancing around the newly lit fire and turning their faces from it, even while the warmth beckoned them.
Morphine licked the tray -- grinned when he saw me watching him -- and went to drop it into the nearest collector.
"Paint me now, Mel?"
"Have you paid?" I asked suspiciously.
"My currency is barter today. I'll pay when you're done."
"I won't remember that you haven't. You'll say you paid upfront and walk away, you rascal."
"I won't. Here, I'll give you a down payment."
He turned up his palm to face me, and a slim white object rolled into it. I had no idea where he'd been hiding it, since he wore no sleeves.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Don't you know?"
He held it up. I saw the slender, tapering shape, the soft-looking tuft of string at one end.
"No, I don't know what that is. Come on, stop playing games."
Morphine laid it down on my countertop and rolled it idly back and forth. "It's a candle."
"A real one?"
"Sure, a real one. Here, you want to hold it?"
He held out his hand and I took it, a bit nervously, wondering if it might burst into flame in my hands. I'd read about such things, but never handled one. It was a bit slick, a bit sticky, like certain kinds of plastic. On a whim, I sniffed it. It smelled sweetish and pungent, and made me think incongruously of the musk of an aroused man.
"You shouldn't let anyone see you with this."
"Don't worry, Mama. I'm not going to get caught. But isn't it nice?"
It was. I let my fingers slip over it, and accidentally caught a bit of that silky material under my fingernail. "Oh, Morphine, I scratched it! I'm sorry."
Morphine laughed. "Don't worry. Here, look." He took it back and rubbed it briskly with his thumb, then showed me the spot. It was smooth again.
"What are they made out of? I forget."
"Wax. Even modern ones. It's like aspirin or alcohol... one of those things they just never found a better substitute for."
"That must have cost you a fortune."
"No, it was free. Want to see where I got it from?"
"Nearby?" I said.
"Oh, fairly close."
"Yes. I'd like to see."
Morphine swung his legs around so he was sitting the right way on the customers' chair. The candle had vanished. "Paint me, then I'll pay. That's the deal."
I sighed and stood behind him. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
"What kind of paint job do you want?"
"Surprise me. I know how you artists are. Don't wanna stifle your cre-a-tiv-i-tee." He grinned, his eyes closed. The rivets made gentle puckers in his skin.
I touched his face lightly with the fingers of both hands. I hadn't painted Morphine since he was a little kid, for his dancing act. His cheekbones were high and smooth, still slightly rounded by lingering baby fat.
He shivered once and was still.
I drew my fingers down his cheeks and let the paint come. Blue for the cheeks, a color meaning serenity and sorrow. Red around the mouth. Birth and death. I thought of a color and it came, flowing straight from my brain to the tiny implants in my fingertips. The minute adjustments of pressure, angle and chemical had long since become automatic.
"Done any new paintings lately, Mel?" I could feel the small muscles in his jaws flex as he spoke, the bones roll smoothly beneath the skin.
"Quiet. You want to wear a green mustache all day?" I was doing small adjustments around his nose. The rings in the skin brushed my fingertips with small, bright shocks.
"Sorry," he whispered.
"It isn't the noise, it's the movement. Hold still!"
"I haven't painted in a while," I said after a moment, and realized that I could still carry the thread of the conversation. Definitely coming off the Fringe.
Morphine mumbled something.
"F'r goddess's sake, that's worse. Just spit it out."
"Said don't screw up too bad, I know how hard this stuff is to wash off."
"Stuff it, kid."
When I was finished, I showed him his reflection in my mirror. He stared at himself for a while. I didn't blame him. It's always like a blow to the gut when you look in the mirror and see something different than what you know should be there. The brain can tell you one thing, but deep down, you know what you look like and anything else is wrong.
I had done a nice job on Morphine's paint, but it wasn't art. The swirls and squiggles across his cheeks and forehead were attractive but meaningless, like a Mozart symphony being used to sell shaving cream. Once, in the days of our long-ago ancestors, there had been magic in that kind of paint. Each touch of color vibrated with the pulse of the energy coiled within the body. But I didn't know how to do that anymore. I think I forgot.
"You need to pay now," I said, a bit hesitantly. I vaguely remembered that he'd said he would pay afterwards, but you don't trust your memories when you're coming off Fringe.
Morphine slipped the candle back into his hand, and I had a moment's shock and confusion when I saw it, before I remembered that he'd had it before. "Come with me," he said, "and I'll pay you in the currency you like best."
I set my security sniffers on the booth. "For God's sake, put that away, would you?" I hissed at Morphine, who was still playing with the candle in his hand.
"I won't get caught, Mama." But it vanished into one of the pockets of his vest.
Aside from collecting their fees and keeping commerce humming smoothly along, the Galleria Merchants Association doesn't bother us much in our day-to-day life. But open flames are one thing they don't find amusing. The Galleria, like many of the more autonomous parts of the city, has no automatic fire-defense system. A fire might tear through our fragile, enclosed ecosystem like claws through wet paper. I've spent some of my days on open worlds, with blue or green skies and cities that don't fear flame, but here, where solid rock separates us from the barren, airless "outdoors," fire is not a friend but a bitter enemy.
All the more cause to wonder where Morphine had come up with this small relic of a world we'd all left behind.
We walked through the Galleria, hand in hand. Around us, the artificial night shone with holosigns. It is often said that you can buy anything in the Galleria, at any hour -- and this is correct, but some kinds of businesses thrive better in the dark than the light. Holo-honeys with their illusory breasts bouncing as if in zero-gee drifted towards us; flickering signs advertised bars, canned memories, credit repair, and loan sharks. It's been said that no one knows every business in the Galleria, even people like Morphine who have lived here all their lives. Everything changes too quickly. New shops come and old ones go. Many of the buildings that we passed were dark and shuttered, but there was no way to know if they were merely closed or abandoned, abandoned for centuries.
I could feel the rivets in Morphine's hand, warm from the heat of his skin, not cold.
We left the floor of the Galleria and climbed one of the ladders to the first tier. All around us, the walls twinkled with thousands of lights. A web of bridges crisscrossed the great space between, up and up, slender fairy spans glittering like strings of diamonds catching the lights. In daylight, they would be prosaic steel catwalks, but everything is more impressive by night.
We climbed two more ladders and walked out onto one of the Grand Bridges. There are three of these at different levels, and like the river bridges in ancient cities, they are lined with shops so densely clustered that you cannot see the floor below. You might as well be walking down a city street, except for the occasional shuddering to remind you of the air beneath your feet.
All the shopfronts we passed now were dark, and most of the striplights were dead. I became very aware of the shadows. Despite the efforts of the GMA, there are still thieves and druggies in the Galleria.
"Morphine, what are we doing here?"
"Do you remember the candle?" he asked me.
"Good. Your memory's coming back. I want you to remember this. It's worth remembering."
We were in one of the dead parts of the Galleria, places I generally avoid. Sometimes these will occur ... one business leaves, then another, the customers stop coming this way. Eventually the dead places will be reclaimed, the dead tissue sloughed off, and somewhere else will die.
Morphine stopped in front of one of the boarded-up storefronts, and pointed up at a burned-out sign that I could just read in the reflected glow of the market's lights.
MELPOMENE SENSORY THEATRE
"Mel, look. It's your name."
"She's the muse of theatre, that's all," I said. "Some marketing exec trying for highbrow." But I felt a strange quiver inside me, remembering that my namesake was not just theatre, but tragedy.
I miss my sisters. Sometimes, I cannot quite remember them, and sometimes I even doubt they existed at all, and then I cry. The computer that made us, our mother in its way, had been made to keep the memories for all of us, so we children had only imperfect recall with our soft, drug-addled human brains. Sometimes when I think of the computer, I actually remember a mother -- warm, soft, loving, a nymph with hands to touch and a heartbeat to snuggle against. I know all about manufactured memories, and I can't discount the fact that someone screwed around in my head even before I was born. But I want to believe, and sometimes I can even smell my mother's skin, musky like the forest soil.
"Well, that sign's what first made me notice this place." Morphine led me around to the side of the building, prized up one of the window-coverings. "In you go."
"Morphine, it's going to be pitch black in there. Thieves and goddess knows what else..."
"No, no, you'll see."
Protesting, I let his scarred hands help me through the window. I hadn't done this kind of thing in so long.
He'd lied. It was dark as the inside of a shipping canister. I took a hesitant step and my foot hit something hard, took a step in another direction and something soft descended on my face. Startled, I backed into a live, moving shape and gave a little squeak before realizing it was Morphine. He took my elbows, steadied me.
"Easy there, Mel."
Light sparkled between his fingers and I saw a little penlight there. He reached over to pull the window covering securely closed, then spread the beam to maximum fan, and held it up.
We appeared to be in some kind of storage room. No, I realized, a dressing room. There was the mirror along one wall, the piles of scattered and abandoned cosmetics, fluffy hats, sensory rigs. The soft thing I'd touched was a costume hanging from the ceiling, a spider-web thing with hosts of trailing feathers. The place was one part Old Broadway, one part strip club.
The air smelled heavy, perfume and dust and human urine tickling the senses.
I started walking, looking at things. The place was in disarray, but not trashed. Some of the costumes had been pulled down and piled in the corner.
"Street kids," Morphine said, as if he weren't one of them, nudging the pile with his toe. "They come here. Sleep here. I've chased some of them out, tidied up the place."
I still didn't understand why it mattered to him. An abandoned building, that was all. Merely an abandoned building that bore my name over the door.
Yet still I could not shake the feeling of deja-vu, that I had walked here before, maybe in another lifetime.
"Come on," Morphine said, lowering his voice to a hushed whisper. "Come see the rest of it."
He opened the door onto another century.
The long-vanished builders of this theatre had clearly been trying to evoke the past -- and not the mass-produced movie houses of the late 20th century or the sensual pleasure-parlors of the 22nd, either. Morphine's penlight swept across velvet curtains thick and rich as blood, across glittering chandeliers gone dark and dusty.
In the darkness, staring at the wonder around me, I stepped forward and my foot encountered empty air. Morphine grabbed my arm, saving me from an inglorious tumble. "Stairs," he whispered.
We walked slowly down the flight of carpeted steps towards the stage. In silence, we passed through the tomb of the wealthy and beautiful. The theatre died later in the colonies than elsewhere, and I understand that it occasionally experiences revivals on the wealthier worlds, where the old is sublime, and high art is the art of performance artists crouching in the streets, painting themselves with their own dung and reveling in the more shocking aspects of our species' shared past. Out here in the colonies, the earlier theatre was just ordinary men and women shucking off their spacesuits to help their fellow creatures forget the day's hard struggle against a wilderness more cruel and alien than our ancestors could have imagined on their warm, wet, hospitable planet. In time, growing leisure meant that patrons no longer went to the theatre, but had the theatre brought to them -- and those were the days of the Sensory Theatre, when the actors mouthed the words of Shakespeare and Homer and learned to dance while trailing a mesh of spider-fine umbilical cables to transmit their every movement to their viewers' skulls.
But they played their parts too well. These days people prefer the feel of recorded dreams.
I stroked the rich curtains when we reached them. The heavy fabric ran beneath my fingertips like flesh or water. Hardly aware of what I was doing, I let myself breath a touch of color onto its dark folds -- a little green here, a hint of Easter-egg blue there.
"That's nice," Morphine said. "Do more of that."
So I swept my hands across the curtains, leaving bold swatches or gentle swirls as the mood took me; and he marveled at the colors, how I could shade scarlet to vermilion, saffron to canary yellow, with a casual thought. I've become too used to the marvels that my makers gave me. It's nice sometimes to see it from another pair of eyes.
"It's too dark in here," I said. "You can't see what I could do, if we had light."
"We can have light," he said. "Come here."
How could there be more wonders in this place? I followed him, trying to imagine how he could have kept this beauty a secret all these years. How could one heart possess such a thing without bursting? Maybe he had told others than me, maybe his friends on the street, his contacts in other walks of his life -- but I didn't think so. I do not believe that anyone besides me ever walked those carpeted stairs with him. I was, and have always been, Morphine's keeper of the sacred and beautiful, the priestess in his temple of the arts.
"Do you sleep in here?" I asked him quietly, walking beside him and drawing my hand idly along the wall.
"In here? God no, Mel. That'd be wrong. I come in here to dance."
"Do you still dance? I'd wondered about that."
"Only where nobody could see me. I had enough of doing it in the marketplace to be laughed at." Without giving me a chance to respond, he threw another door wide. "Here, feast your eyes on this, Mama."
The room was white, white and gleaming in the pale narrow beam of the penlight. And then I realized it was white with candles. Candles, candles everywhere, illegal candles spilling across the floor, heaped carelessly in sprawling piles.
"Morphine, there must be hundreds," I breathed, bending to pick one up.
"More like thousands," he said, taking the one from his pocket and playing with it.
"Where did they all come from?"
"In here, mostly. They were everywhere. I think they used to light the place with candles. The people who worked here."
"With real candles? Is that possible?"
"Who knows what they did? Back in the colony days, before the GMA, nothing was banned, no matter how unhealthy. Anyway, I gathered them all here."
I knelt, and, compelled by an urge I could not fight or explain, reached my hands into the sea of candles. They swam through my fingers like too-heavy silk. I lifted handfuls, let them fall through my fingers, and laughed.
"I thought you'd like it," Morphine said. I looked up at his face, cast in shadows by the penlight, not unlike a statue flickering by firelight in a cave. The scars pinched his face and made weird tattoos, swirling with the meaningless markings I'd painted like tribal paint. My feeble markings seemed even more banal to me now.
"You know what I'd really like?"
"What's that, Mel?"
"I'd like to see you dance," I said.
Emotions fleeted across his face, surprise and fear and yearning. "Not a good idea," he said.
"I like you, Mama, but I don't plan to be a freak for you."
I touched his face. Touched the paint. "I would never call you that horrid name."
"No, I guess not," he whispered, caught under my spell. Under the spell of the candles.
"I love to watch you dance," I said. "Let's make this place blaze like it was meant to."
We each gathered up armloads of candles and went back to the curtained gallery. Candles slipped from our arms and littered the carpet behind us. It didn't matter. There were more. Hundreds more.
"I don't know how on the holy moon we're going to get them up there," I said, tilting my head back and staring at the chandeliers.
"They used to have big levers to raise and lower those, but there hasn't been power in here in ages," Morphine said. "I guess we'll have to make do with the sconces."
"These," he said, holding up a massive gleaming metal thing that seemed fit to bash someone's brains into pudding.
He helped me set up sconces, as he called them, around the stage -- dozens, hundreds. Each one had reflectors of polished brass. I could imagine what those would do, gathering the candle's light and casting it back on the stage.
Surely it couldn't possibly work. Such a crazy arrangement of flaming animal fat couldn't possibly light a room this large.
"I'll go open the curtains," Morphine said. He handed me his penlight and vanished.
I wondered how he planned to do that without electricity, but soon found out. The velvet curtains began to inch back, squeaking softly. He was doing it by hand. Slowly the stage appeared, gleaming like bone. I held the penlight in my teeth and went on setting up candles. I wasn't afraid of the dark, but there was something sad and lonely about being here all by myself, a tiny light in the great darkness.
"Your turn, Madam Scenery Painter," Morphine said.
He was sitting on the edge of the empty stage, swinging his feet like a kid. "What are you talking about?" I said, turning from a stubborn candle that wouldn't stand upright in its sconce.
Morphine waved his hand around. "I can't dance in a concrete fortress, can I?"
This place of glass and velvet could hardly be called such a thing, but I warmed to the idea of coloring it. Thinking of the cave painters of Old Earth, spreading their brown and gold paint by the sacred light of a flickering torch, I gripped the penlight in my teeth and splashed my colors upon the curtains. Red and yellow, blue and green, magenta and silver, and even colors that had no name ... all bred by my mental eye and the unnatural cells beneath my fingernails. My fingertips grew warm from the energy of pigment conversion, and I felt breathless, dizzy. Still I stretched to my tiptoes, drawing swaths of color over the curtains, over the stage. I climbed up to paint the silvery backdrop, barely aware of Morphine quietly moving out of my way. Time, space, these things meant nothing to me now, and I was high on something other than Fringe. Art can take you that way, sometimes, when you are born and bred to it.
I sat down on the edge of the stage, panting, my fingernails painfully hot against the soft pads of my hands. "Morphine?" I said.
My voice echoed gently through the abandoned theatre.
He had gone somewhere else. Into a different reality, maybe, like I went away in my head when I painted. Only maybe kids of this day and age had learned how to make their bodies follow their minds, turning and slipping sideways into a more beautiful world.
So all that was left to me now was to call him back. I knew how to do that. I knew the old summoning magic, the rites of fire.
I went through the abandoned theatre like a silent ghost, setting up candles, positioning their little reflectors, lighting them. Slowly the place came to life, glowing in a warm light not seen for hundreds of years, the rich bright light of thousands of candles burning together.
It was not dark.
When I imagined theatres of a bygone age, I thought they'd be dark, with little smoky candles sputtering in the corners, and shadows eating up the faces of the patrons ... twisting their features to goblins leering from the crowd. But the light of a thousand candles made a fire so bright it intoxicated me, half drove me mad. It was a living
light, a light that twisted and flickered and flared. It reached into the corners with its own fingers, but even as it revealed, it also concealed, capriciously, as it chose. This was no striplight, cool and safe and tame, but the light of the primal fire itself. This light had danced on the walls of caves as the first men huddled near it for warmth. My colors came to life, danced and burned until it seemed they would come out of the walls and dance with me, as I hoped to see Morphine dance.
I stood in a rapture of candles. I closed my eyes and felt their heat, for though one candle appears to burn cold, thousands of them are hot enough that it seems they might blister the skin. I understood, then, how hot and bright those theatre patrons had lived their lives in those old days, in the avenues of Paris and London and Broadway -- how each candle was a brutal death in the making, flaring all too close to horsehair and velvet. So many people had died in those ancient stampedes to flee from burning theatres.
The knowledge of mortality that the candles brought, the sense of danger all around, made me feel very alive. I thought it might have been the same for those ancient ones.
I opened my eyes just as Morphine appeared onstage.
He was a ghost, like myself, in the too-bright lights of another century. For a moment I was jarred out of my ecstasy by the shock of seeing him, with his piercings and tattoos and rivets, surrounded by velvet and wood struck in cave-painter's colors. I had not seen him step forth from the wings. He was just there, from one moment to the next, a specter sent to terrify the eighteenth-century theatre patrons.
I dreamed that I could hear their voices around me, a soft susurration of wonder and fear.
He wasn't sure at first what to do. Then he began his dance. At first he moved through patterned steps made familiar by generations of dancers before him, the little hops and glides that he had once done in front of a crowd of adults on the street in the hopes of being thrown some bread. But slowly the dance began to change, and I realized that what I was seeing were his own changes. Perhaps he had practiced these leaps and whirls in private, in the abandoned warehouses where he slept, in this theatre of the dead.
Is this dance for me?
I thought, dizzied by the sweet smoke of the candles, by his frantic leaps and spins. Am I the muse of your dreams? Ah, but I'm only Melpomene... the mask of tragedy. My sister Terpsichore should be the inspiration for this beauty, but there is only me, casting shadows in a smoky theatre.
It took me some time to notice the other dancer on the stage. At first it was like a trick of my eyes, a faint shadow trailing Morphine's leaps and twirls, sometimes in perfect synch, sometimes drifting a little out of step so that it appeared as a ghost of his figure. But slowly the figure began to separate. I blinked, drawn from the beauty of Morphine's dancing to that elusive figure. I could see the cracked backdrop of the stage through its body.
Graceful, androgynous, it leapt about the stage, mimicking Morphine's moves with ease and occasionally adding a new step of its own. I could see red hair now, flowing about its face.
Morphine faltered suddenly, missing an easy step. He had seen it, too. He dropped into a crouch and one hand flicked a buzzknife between the fingers, so easily and gracefully that it might have been part of the dance.
The creature mimicked him, sliding into a crouch with one empty hand outstretched towards his.
I couldn't bear the strangeness of it -- the two of them crouched, neither moving, like reflections in a mirror. I approached the stage, and the heat of the candles surrounded me until I felt I would burn my lungs if I breathed. Constellations of sweatdrops glistened on Morphine's skin.
"Is this all?" the creature said.
Both of us jumped when it spoke in a soft, familiar voice. It stood up, and Morphine warily followed suit. It was becoming more solid now, and the scenery seen through its body was gray and insubstantial, as if the theatre was the ghost, and the ghost was the only reality.
Its face remained uncertain, half-formed, a Cheshire cat in reverse.
"Who are you?" I said.
"Don't talk to it, Mel."
The ghost spread its hands. "You know me. Do you think that just because you choose to make yourself shadow creatures I don't know you? Because you have no numbers, no jacks, and leave no credit trail? I still know you. I know everyone in my city."
"Loki." I breathed the name of the computer.
The ghost was clearer now. I could see that it had patterned its lean, muscular physique loosely upon Morphine's. The face was bland, androgynous, framed by red hair, and then I recognized it with a shock. I had seen that face before, making public announcements on screens around the city. It was the city computer's speaking face, a composite designed for its soothing effect upon the human psyche.
Somehow, it was terribly strange to see those bland features on a human body. As I watched, though, the features solidified and crystallized from the computer-generated stereotype of a human face, into something that resembled Morphine's face as its body resembled his body -- a Morphine devoid of rivets or tattoos, of body-mods and cat's tail ... a body as smooth and beautiful as that of a Greek god.
"Stop that!" Morphine snapped.
"I like your form," Loki said. It touched its face with one slender hand. "I am tired of wearing a plastic mask. A byte is a byte, isn't it?"
"Not when it looks like me," Morphine said. I could see the hand that held the knife shaking somewhat. "You have no right."
"I don't understand."
The voice was Loki's, yet the face unmistakably Morphine's -- but different, somehow. I tried to figure out what changed it, and then realized that the computer didn't truly know how to model the movements of human facial muscles. It was almost perfect, but not quite.
That made me feel a bit better.
"How are you doing this?" I asked. "What are you -- a hologram?"
Loki waved its hand at the velvet curtains. "This is a theatre. We're surrounded by projectors... an easy matter to unlock their codes, the work of a few milliseconds for me."
I felt weak with disappointment, like a child who had squealed as the swords pierced the magician's lovely assistant, only to have the sides of the box fall away halfway through the act and reveal her body tucked up inside. It was only a cheap trick after all.
"No power," Morphine said.
Loki shrugged, and it almost managed to get that human gesture right. "Switches aren't mechanical any more. I can easily throw a few."
"You mean we could've lit this place with electric lights?"
Loki shrugged. "If you had wished."
"I don't get it," Morphine said. "What are you doing, playing a game?"
"Dancing," Loki said. "Dancing with you. I enjoyed this dance."
"You're a computer," I said. "You don't ... enjoy. You don't feel. You don't want anything."
Loki turned its face towards me -- more and more alive, as it slowly learned to recreate the movements of human eyebrows, human lips.
"You have surrounded yourself with marvels, and forgotten how to marvel," Loki said softly. "You have lost the awe and terror of what you have built."
Morphine reached out his hand, with far more nerve than I possessed, and waved his hand at Loki's sleeve. His fingers passed right through, and he sighed, and put away the buzzknife. "It is
just a hologram," he said.
"I told you," Loki said without malice.
"Computers can't lie," I added.
Loki looked at me from half-lidded eyes, and said nothing.
"I think it's time to go," I said softly to Morphine.
He nodded and leaped lithely down from the stage, leaving Loki's hologram standing there alone.
We both looked around us, at the velvet and the wood, at the lofty ceiling with its projectors sparkling in the candlelight like ancient spotlights gone dead. Loki watched us quietly without expression on its face. I was too aware of its presence, pressing on me like a great weight. I knew that I could never come back here now, and I saw a faint sadness in Morphine's face and wondered if he felt the same way. Yet it didn't hurt, though it should have. Things always end.
Morphine pinched a candle out with two fingers, and then looked around at all the other candles, and looked at me. There was acceptance in his eyes. "Should we?"
I half-smiled. "Isn't it how the story always ends?"
Simultaneously we pushed over the two nearest candelabra. The candles scattered on the floor, guttering against the heavy tapestries. We tipped over more and more of them, and I thought in sudden fear: What if the fabric is fire-resistant?
But it wasn't. This was the good stuff, the rich stuff, the old stuff -- the flammable fabrics of a less enlightened age. Finally some of the drapes began to smolder, then more of them. The fire didn't flash, it crept, and it was burning slowly and smokily by the time we had thrown down all the candles within our reach.
"You humans do like to destroy things," Loki said, standing in a circle of fire. Clouds of choking smoke passed through his form.
I covered my mouth with my hands, but still coughed. Morphine took my shoulder. "No telling what's in these things. Some of the fumes might kill us. Come on. Let's get out of here."
We walked out slowly. Behind us, the fire was picking up speed, as its heat crisped the fabric of seats and cushions to tinder-dryness. I could not resist looking back and what I saw made me shudder: the slim form of a boy onstage, standing without concern or care as the fire licked around him and flaming pieces fell onto the stage from the curtains above him. For a moment, I felt the lure of hot oblivion draw me in. The boy's eyes, ageless and not at all innocent, looked back at me through the shimmering smoke and heat. I knew then why Lot's wife truly died -- not a judgment at all, but the call of endings, a pull far stronger than an uncertain future in a strange and lonely land.
Morphine's strong arm around me pulled me forward. We stumbled out of the burning theatre onto the bridge. An alarm wailed somewhere, but if there had ever been fire suppression systems installed here, they had long since ceased to work. For a moment we clung to each other, and then merged with the crowd gathering to gawk at the fire. You'd expect to see fear and dismay, a sense of impending disaster as the residents of an enclosed ecosystem watched their delicate environment going up in a column of smoke and flames, but instead a street-fair atmosphere had developed. Someone was hawking candy, and two kids were trying to get close enough to toast something in the flames -- a rat, I saw, still alive and squirming. I was glad when finally the GMA's tunnelbots arrived to lock everything down, chase away the onlookers and put the fire out.
I wondered how well the scrubbers would deal with the fire's effluvium, and if the entire city would carry the taint of burnt plastic for days afterward. I could taste it on the back of my tongue, like the taint of sin. It's true,
I thought; we have forgotten to fear our creations.
Morphine coughed. "Damn. God knows what that crap did to our lungs." He laughed suddenly. "But it was sure worth it, wasn't it, Mel?"
I looked at him and saw his teeth flash in his blackened face when he smiled.
"It was wonderful," I said, and didn't know if I meant the theatre, or the dance, or the fire. When I closed my eyes, I could still see the rich light of the candles, throbbing in a darkness that belonged to the past.
Morphine's fingers twitched, and I saw a flash of white between them.
"Oh, you didn't --"
He handed me the candle. It was heavy in my palm, warm and greasy.
"Didn't theatres always hand out souvenirs?" Morphine asked me. I laughed and tucked the illicit candle away under my jacket.
"Ephemera," he said after a moment. I looked at him in surprise that he knew such a word. Like I said, there's more to this kid than meets the eye. "That's what candles are supposed to be. Y'know, they burn and then they're gone. It's kind of funny that it would outlive the theatre."
He jerked his head back towards the bridge. We could no longer see the blackened husk of the theatre, but the pall of smoke hung in the air, and some of the shoppers coughed as they passed us.
For a moment I saw the ephemeral nature of them all. If you made a holo of the Galleria and then played it, speeded up over days, months, years, you'd watch them flickering like ghosts until their bodies all ran together into a rainbow of color. You'd see shops appear and flourish and die. Candle flames blown out in the wind. I shook my head, dizzied by the vision -- or possibly by the smoke, it was hard to tell.
"We'd better give credit where credit is due," Morphine added, nodding towards a public comm booth as we passed it.
I didn't really want to, but he was right. "Did you enjoy that, Loki?" I asked the blank and silent screen.
The image of the red-haired young man flickered above the surface. It still wore a face vaguely like Morphine's, and vaguely not.
"I could hardly say it was viscerally satisfying, since I have no viscera," the computer said. "It was better than dancing, though. Dancing... gave me one kind of ... would you call it pleasure, for one such as I? Watching the theatre burn gave me a different kind of ... pleasure."
"It's better to destroy than create, you mean?" I said, and felt another peculiar chill -- that the two of us had introduced a concept to the computer that was better left alone. Still, we programmed the thing -- we, humankind. It possesses only what we have given it. A computer would never be able to run an entire city if two Shadows can cause it to doubt itself, change its mind, go insane. It must be bulletproof against those things.
"Anyway," the computer said offhandedly, "thanks."
"For what?" Morphine asked.
"A dance." The image faded.
I reminded myself that the computer was programmed to present a pleasing voice to the public, to emulate every human emotion. My eyes met Morphine's, and for an instant I saw a flicker of my own fear in his face -- the fear that we, humankind, have forgotten to feel. The fear that our ancestors knew, crouching in the flickering darkness and learning that we can build a fire that burns even ourselves.
That fear gave rise to gods and muses, roofs and spaceships. I wondered what we could build now that we had lost it.
The answer might be in Morphine's brash young eyes, in the candleflame burning behind his pupils.
I reached up and drew my fingers in a line down Morphine's jaw, feeling the sweat and dust drying to a sticky film. I drew him war-paint through the soot, and this time, I realized, it was meaningful paint after all. I knew where the magic of the ancient peoples had come from: the divine inspiration of fear and smoke and sweat. I painted Morphine as a survivor of the fire, and though I don't think he understood its meaning, he laughed for me again and his pleasure pleased me.
I painted him, and warmed my cold hands, the hands my mother gave me, at the flame burning inside him. It saddened me to think of that flame flickering and fading, but maybe I won't live to see it. Sometimes a candle outlives the theatre it was meant to light, after all.
This story was written with the intent of making it as separate as possible from the main Kismet stories. I intended this one to be submitted for publication to magazines. Got a couple of rejection slips and quit trying. However, that's why it's only tangentially related to the main Kismet mythos, and also why it has a slightly different atmosphere than they normally do.
When I wrote it, I intended a sort of faint magical-realism feeling to it ... so you *could* read Mel as a scientific creation, or as a real muse trying to survive in a scientific world, the last survivor of all her sisters, rewriting her own history in her head to make sense in a world where the Greek gods no longer exist.
Morphine was always intended to be Fleetwood's son, though it's never really specified in the story. This was his first appearance anywhere.
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