The city unfolds in every direction. It’s busy. It looks different to every person in it, and no on agrees on where the center is. Nobody really cares, either, or talks about it. You don’t discuss the geography of the city, as a whole; only a certain type of person does that, and if you have any social ambitions you don’t want to be that type of person. So you explore, you experience, but you don’t map; or you stay carefully on the few routes you trust. But you don’t map, at least not out loud. And you don’t compare directions or routes, how to get to certain parts of the city; you get there by the route you know from your own experience, or you stumble onto a new one. Maybe that’s why, in the environment of a thousand hustling bodies per square foot (it seems), you can still feel alone.
. . .
Alik ran down the Avenue until she was out of sight of home and and Mom, who’d told her to stay on the thoroughfare. The safe, busy, broad Avenue. Alik knew she wouldn’t, and probably Mom knew that, too. But their current relationship – which was working okay – required a lot of pretending not to know things you knew. They yelled at each other less. Overall, it was a better stance. The Avenue was busy and the air was thick with voices and out breaths, but it was always busy; the city was less on a rhythm of busy to not busy and more on a swing from chaotically frenetic to reasonably active. At the moment, it was heavy in the chaotic end of things, but Alik knew how to navigate it. The shops had their wide front entrances flung open, and there was some kind of parade or show assembling. The crowd gathering to see it looked earnest and many of them wore the same color combination, pale blue and a dark brownish green. Alik skittered around, bouncing off the edges of their energy which was humming and buzzing though their faces were serious, even somber. She leapt to the side as a huge stage was pulled into position, dodged a carpet roll delivery truck and a team of horses with ribbons braided into their manes, then ducked under a lowering walking bridge to turn into a quiet, overlooked side street beside Renfro’s Bakery and Candy Emporium. There she slowed to a walk, letting her boots thud on the dirty stones. This was one of the older streets, maybe an original. Probably not. All the officially recognized original places she knew had the dirt-red bricking, crude squares with a rough finish. Lots of cracks. The guides said no one had perfected the brick making techniques, at the time. That’s why the City historically had arranged for the lacquering, layers of the sticky clear poured over those valuable original shoddily done bricks. Layer after layer and then a specially treated poxy-glass over all. So now you walked about a meter over the original bricking, glass and lacquer keeping your terrible thudding feet from doing more damage. The poxy-glass was great. Unscratchable, unbreakable, and some amateur historian was always slipping down on the perfectly smooth surface. So, high entertainment value, too.
The side streets that Alik favored felt like a different world. They were darker and cooler than the main roads, where everything public happened. People on the side street were occupied in their own business, and didn’t want to know yours. A couple of dark men stood closely outside the door to an old Technology Works repair center. They didn’t pause in their muttered conversation or glance at Alik as she walked by. She didn’t look at them, either. That was the code, the courtesy of side-street travel.
An old woman sat in a doorway that had been boarded up, tethers hung all over the alcoves. One hand-lettered sign said GOOD USED TETHERS CHEAP and on the other side a newer, printed sign read TETHER YOURSELF! in red block letters. That didn’t make any sense. How would you tether yourself… you’d have to have a partner, and then it’s not really tethering yourself anymore, is it? None of the adult tethering appealed to Alik, anyway. Tethers were for ids too young to navigate alone or for adults to scared to really live, as far as she was concerned. Alik let her eyes slide over to the old woman and then jerked back. The woman was staring straight at her. She was hunched over and hooded but her copper eyes gleamed. Alik walked faster and kept her gaze straight ahead after that. Was it a slip on the woman’s part, or a deliberate move, a warning? She made a mental note to take a different route back.
The alley ended in a gray wall, high and heavy, constructed of the same stones that Alik was walking on. People who didn’t know how to navigate the alley would turn back. Alik didn’t pause; she put her boots in grooves she knew well and climbed halfway up the wall. Then she turned her body and took a wide step into what looked, from below, like the corner of the wall. From below you couldn’t see the opening, the short, squat steps carved into the side of the outer wall. Alik hunched over, ran up the steps and stepped out not Platform A-30.
The platform was a different level than her home level, and the air was different. Today it was purplish, and tangy. Metallic. She liked it and breathed in deep as she joined the crowd waiting for the next set of trains. The whoosh and rumble of engines was huge, but people around her still tried to talk, leaning close and shouting into each other’s faces. Alik was halfway down the platform when she felt that tingle, the scratching on her neck, the one she’d learned to trust. She spun, looking back toward her point of entrance, and saw her. The old android woman from below. Her copper eyes were reflecting back the platform lights, locked onto Alik, shuffling toward her, pushing through the crowd with a surprising agility. One gnarled synth and metallic hand held a bunch of tether; the other clenched a bright silver dagger, and it was pointed straight at Alik.
. . .
Every teenager knows the trick with the City center and the horizon. Due to the nature of the center, and of navigation itself, of course, you can’t do it as a group, something every parent whispers a little prayer of gratitude over, teens in a group being far more prone to extreme choices than when alone. But chasing the horizon can only be done alone; because the City center is different for everyone, and that’s where you have to start.
The procedure is simple. Find the center for you, and face it squarely. Plant your feet. Stand straight and tall. No one knows how important these details are. Lean into the center with as much weight as you can give it without falling over or accidentally porting through. Then – all at once – spin 180 degrees and lock your eyes on the thin black band that is your furthest horizon. If you do it right, the band will get thicker as you watch. At this point, the stories about what happens next get varied. Some say that if you don’t look away, the black band of horizon will expand until it consumes the entire sky and then it will consume you. Others say it will wash over and through you and it is harmless. One version, particularly chilling, promises that if you let the band broaden and pass through you, your soul will be marked as a possession of the Neocrids and sooner or later they will come to claim you. Usually sooner. The android versions say it will rust your metal, cause your poly parts to melt and your electronic widgets to short and unravel. Or that it will give your metal a spotless finish that can’t be tainted and ensure harmony between your poly and any widget or electronic add you choose to make. Who knows. Most of the stories agree that all you have to do to stop it is to look away. But after a certain thickness (no one knows exactly what that point is, or how to measure it), the dark of the horizon band is hypnotic and you can’t look away. Some say. You can walk or run or otherwise go to meet it but that’s difficult: to navigate without looking away from a thickening horizon. You’ll end up walking into a wall or getting lost in one of those inevitable mazes or porting accidentally somewhere you don’t want to be. Plus you don’t make it far. Something about the time and distance shifts when you’re chasing down the horizon. You’ll swear it’s been days and miles, but when you tear your eyes back, it’s ten minutes later and your friends are clustered behind you, dazed and giggling. Some kids meet up at one of the deserts or somewhere to at least start together, maybe to have witnesses. Every adult has a story of when they did it, some more than once. But who can verify any of it? Even with your friends, even with a whole group of them watching you, all they’ll see is you standing there staring at something they can’t see like a moron, or you blinking navigating away if you try to chase it down.
It occurred to Alik, in one of those odd, slow moments of clarity that come sometimes when your adrenaline spikes, that the android woman was coming at her precisely from Alik’s own centerpoint. That knowledge, with its instant following knowledge that if she whirled around now she would see her horizon growing, flashed through her mind as she scrambled backwards through the crowd. She didn’t want to take her eyes off the woman and that dagger, but the stumbling backward thing wasn’t fast enough. She whirled around, saw the rushing, thickening black line, heard a scream, and ripped her eyes back to her own feet. She was running, dodging people, sliding around the huge pillars that dotted the platform. More screams and yells, closer, but she couldn’t stop to see if they were from people she’d knocked over or from others seeing a copper-eyed, dagger-wielding old woman running after here. Who even uses a dagger? This is ridiculous, Alik thought, and made a split-second deacon. She ducked into a narrow alcove leading to the public washrooms, shoved a boot onto either wall, and hop-climbed up it until she was holding herself at head level, one hand on the ceiling to keep herself steady. The android was leaving a wake in the crowd, eyes darting and sliding across space, her legs rolling forward in a jerky but quick shuffle. Alik waited, took in a deep breath, then launched out and not the android. They landed hard and skidded through the crowd, then slammed into the side of a ticket kiosk. Alik’s legs were pinning the android to the underskirt of the kiosk, and her ears were ringing, but she was alert. She twisted her upper body around and pinned the woman’s arms to the ground. Tethers were scattered all around them and the crowd parted, eyeing the awkward pair warily but not stopping to intervene or help. The silver dagger was still in the woman’s grip. Alik darted her eyes to it. “Drop it,” she said.
The copper eyes didn’t blink. The woman’s skin had that sheen to it, the dead giveaway of polymer skin. Manufacturers couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the sheen without reducing the skin’s elasticity. Trade-offs.
“I said, drop it.” Alik pushed on the android’s arms, grinding the dagger-holding one into the floor a bit more. The woman winced but didn’t resist.
“No.” Her voice was old-woman watery. “You must take it. It is yours.”
“Well, drop it and I’ll take it,” Alik hissed. What in the City was she talking about?
“No.” The woman stared. “That would be giving. It won’t do. You must take it. Take it.” Her voice was hard and desperate behind the waver.
“Fine.” Alik grimaced. The android seemed to be standard-issue, with pain receptors and average strength. Her age weakened her further; android or not, she was a very old woman. The poly around her eyes was lined and spotted. Alik didn’t want to hurt an old woman, but… Well, the droid had kind of started it with the whole dagger-chasing scenario. Alik shifted suddenly, jabbing one knee into the woman’s side while jerking down and twisting the dagger hand. It worked; the android’s hand opened involuntarily and the dagger slid to the floor with a small, silvery tang. Alik grabbed it and stood, her breath quick and heavy.
“Now,” she said, “What is this about?”
The woman’s eyes were fixed on the dagger. She smiled and muttered something, then her eyes shuttered.
“No!” yelled Alik, as a generic, uncustomized voice – used for pre-activation droid interactions, or in non-humanoid items -began speaking from the woman’s adenoid speakers: “Subject H3207-B has initiated self shutdown sequence. Stand by.”
The clicking and whirring continued with the smooth robotic voice narrating. Alik backed away, slipped on a tether, and caught herself. H3207-B. That was all she had now, as far as finding answers for that weirdness that had just unfolded. The crowd began surging forward to the train’s open doors, stepping carefully over or around the lifeless, erased android on the floor. Alik let herself be pushed along by the movement. She slid the dagger into the pocket of her coat and slumped into a seat. The tunnel around the train blurred by, and she looked down to see that her hands were trembling.
. . .
The simplified history provided by the official City tours and guides insisted that there was a definite founding date, a clear, historical point of intent some ten thousand years ago. Fine enough for tour groups, but any half-scholarly student of the City’s history could tell you it was bullshit. Nobody knew exactly when the City was founded, or who was responsible. Scholarly scenarios proposed everything from wandering nomads with no intentions other than surviving to off-planet explorers, stranded or, perhaps, pioneering, to vigilantes, exiled royalty, or even Neocriddic origins. Androids had their own versions, generally in which their race dominated for centuries and was betrayed by humanoid manipulation, landing them in their current, less-than-powerful socioeconomic status. There was probably some truth to the android version, Alik thought; some parts of the City couldn’t be explained except from the tenets of robotic architecture, complex and nearly incomprehensible to more organic species.
Most humans avoid those particular sections, if they find them at all. Maybe that was what Alik liked about them. The side streets had the same appeal – anonymity, aloneness – but you couldn’t really hang out and rest in the alleys. You kept moving and you needed to be purposeful or you’d get in trouble. But the oldest, droid-designed sections were gleaming – they used some sort of dust-repelling metal for most surfaces – and mostly empty. They got cold in the dark months but that was easily handled. Alik stepped off the train at the Gypserium and ran up the stairs. She’d been planning to find Rafe and the others, but they could wait. She needed to sit, to think for a minute. And she wanted to look at the dagger. She went to her favorite spot, the one that nobody, not even Rafe, knew about. It was beside an old auditorium, dark and silent, a series of hallways that sprouted like whiskers from the curved, gleaming white wall. She took the third one, halfway down, then ducked out the window to the fire ladder. She could swing down to the iron balcony of an empty office or climb up to the roof. She went up, over to the corner, and sat behind the turbines. The two droid women on the far side, hanging laundry, didn’t notice her.
The dagger was silver, long and thin with a serious edge on the blade. Alik looked closer and saw copper-gold swirls in the silver. Some kind of alloy, then. The handle was silver, too, but darker in tone. No gold swirls. It was twisted and thick, almost ugly, but when Alik closed her hand around it she forgot how it looked. The feel was amazing; responsive tech in an outdated hand weapon? It felt warm and perfect in her hand, like she couldn’t drop it even if she tried. And why would she try? It felt… like something she should have been born with, something she’d bee missing her whole life. She lifted it into the light, saw that the gold swirls were shifting, rotating and throbbing in place, and she understood: that was her energy, her intention. If you wanted to kill somebody with this thing, you’d only have to think about it and let the dagger do the rest. Alik shuddered. Kill somebody? What in the City was wrong with her? You give a girl a dagger and suddenly she’s an assassin. She shook her head and stared at the blade again, turning it in the sunlight that fell from a weak blue sky. Droids as a species tended to disdain weapons. It wasn’t like the droid soldiers needed any. And she had said, “It’s yours.” What in the City did that mean? It felt custom-made, but that was the work of responsive tech. Customization to the particle, at the point of contact, done on a cellular level rather than via historical data. That’s why people paid big money for responsive tech, and why it was so closely regulated. It was powerful. Addictive. Alik held the blade closer and stared at the swirls again, trying to clear her mind of the chatter like Mom had taught her. Deep breaths in and longer breaths out, over and over, and not focusing on the questions but letting them be there, letting them rest. The swirls in the blade kept shifting; the movement reminded her of a snake through grass, a kind of organic, back-and-forth movement. In the blade it seemed to be going somewhere but wasn’t. That one swirl was glowing especially bright. Alik narrowed her eyes on it, took another deep breath, and all of a sudden her head slammed back, her eyes wide open with the force of a wind that had come out of nowhere. Images flashed, blurred by the tears springing from her eyes. She couldn’t move her head. The images blinked in and out, fast: a dark room with torches in the wall. A wooden table. Wine in a bottle. A fire. A man’s hand, opening and closing. A pile of something gleaming. Then red fabric, leather, a man’s face gasping, a man grabbing at his chest, red blood pouring out, red blood on a leather vest, red blood splattering onto a wooden table.
The wind grew to a scream and Alik thought her eyes would burn out, then it stilled. Her head fell down to her chest and her eyes closed, burning. She reached with her left hand to feel her other hand, still clenched around the dagger. The hate of it was almost painful but she couldn’t remember how to uncurl her fingers. “Let go,” she thought. “I want to let go. I need to… how do I let go? Release.”
Nothing happened. She peeled one eye open and squinted at the dagger. Her left hand, her whole arm, was shaking but her right arm was still as stone. “Release,” she thought again, staring at her hand around the weapon. Something clicked and she heard the dagger clatter to the roof. She closed her eyes and let herself pass out.
. . .
Although it’s rarely used, the City officials designated a plaza – an enormous one – for the purpose of City-wide official meetings. The entire population, all species. Those meetings were hardly ever called. There hadn’t been one in Alik’s lifetime, though Mom had attended the last one, when she was a teen herself. She’d told Alik about it. The meeting were always memorable, only called in the most dire emergencies or, as was the case for the last, at the most important milestones of achievement and celebration. Alik’s mom went to the meeting called to officially announce and celebrate the annexation of the last remaining Neocrid territory. Worth the meeting, Mom said. Alik knew the City history. They’d been trying to fully annex all Neocrid sites for centuries. Even though the Neocrids were rarely seen – some fools even said they’d all died out – they still had many powers, in the larger global empire, who feared and supported them. Annexation was not only a bureaucratic nightmare, a tangle of legal and tax issues, but it also required a kind of ongoing guerrilla warfare against the campaigns mounted by Neocrid supporters. The final annexation was a triumph not only of the City’s position in Empire politics but also their development as a militarice power-to-be-reckoned-with. The Neocrids themselves had launched an assault, consuming an entire unit. But the City’s soldiers had overpowered and driven them out.
In less exciting times, i.e., Alik’s entire life, the Plaza was used for an ongoing market and multiple smaller events, often happening simultaneously. The plaza could accommodate the demands; at nearly three miles wide and over five miles long, you could do a lot without bothering your neighbor’s event.
Alik woke up to the smell of fish, dead ones, and – she sniffed and retched – not too fresh. She must have ported when she passed out. The black spots in her eyes and ringing in her ears confirmed it. She swayed as she stood up, between two market booths. Fish on her left and, seriously? Flowers on her right. She flexed her right hand, which felt sore and tingly. Then it hit her. She felt in her pockets, but she knew. The sound replayed, metal clattering on a concrete roof. She’d passed out, ported, and left the dagger behind. Oh gods. She started running but her head spun. Too much. How to get back to the roof from the Plaza? It was multiple routes, none of them short. Her stomach clenched. She hated porting. She stumbled to a foundation, splashed water on her face, and sat on a bench. She needed to let her body settle, recover. Get some food. Then she could return. She’d go straight to the roof and get the dagger. It would be there. It had to be there.
“Alik!” The voice – Mom’s – was close. Too close. Alik rolled over in her room and opened her eyes, the tiniest crack. Mom’s face, stern, and a bright room shining behind it. That unblinking, calm stare would go on and on, through all your excuses until you sputtered out the real story. Alik grimaced and pulled herself into a semi-sitting position. Mom in her room meant that no more sleep would be happening.
“What time is it?”
“Almost noon.” Mom rocked back on her heels. She could squat like that forever. It made Alik’s thighs burn to watch her.
“Noon. Oh.” Everything was blurry around the edges, but bright. So bright. Mom’s eyes came back into focus again. She did blink, but it was so quick and her stare so focused that it seemed unbroken. That’s what you got when your Mom taught things like Supertranscendental Meditation and Enhanced Potentiality of Concentration for a living.
“Mom, seriously. Quit starting. And, like, sit down or something.” Alik tossed a pillow over.
“Okay, but you know I need to know what was going on with you. You looked… awful. When you came in last night.”
Mom propped the pillow on the wall and leaned back. “Ah, yeah. That. So, I accidentally ported yesterday.”
Mom knew how much Alik hated porting.
“It was an accident. I blacked out, and it just… happened.”
“Why did you black out?” Mom’s eyes were doing the stare again. “Were you drunk? Or something? Alik?”
Ah, the voice was getting as intense as the eyes.
“Mom, come on. You know I don’t do that stuff.” Alik shrugged. “I think I was just weak. I hadn’t eaten, and I’m on my cycle… And I was running a new route that was longer than I thought. From Platform 30-A.” Some truth was good. It had to be enough, and you could leave out some details. A few. Choose carefully. Mom didn’t speak; she waited. That was her greatest power, Alik decided.
“So, I wasn’t feeling good, and I was tired, and then some screwed-up android woman chased me across the platform, and – “
Careful here, Alik. Careful.
“Yeah. She followed me in, I guess, from the side street.” Alik let her eyes drop, then looked back at Mom. “I’m sorry, Mom. I know you don’t like them, it’s just… They’re faster! And quieter.” She shrugged again. “Usually.”
“And filled with androids that chase you?”
“Well, one. She was an old one, too, I don’t think she could have hurt me, but I kind of panicked, okay? And she was running right at me, so I ran… Then we both fell and when I got up, she had self-initiated a shutdown.”
“Ah.” Mom’s face was calm and relaxed but that one line between her eyes was deep. She was worried. That never meant anything good for Alik. She hurried on.
“It was weird, Mom. I don’t know. Maybe her processing component was corrupted or something.”
“Did she say anything?” The line on Mom’s forehead deepened.
“She said something about giving something to me. That she couldn’t give it to me, that I had to take it.” That was true. “Whatever *it* is.” Don’t pause too long here. “I got her unit id, when the shutdown started. Here.” Alik shuffled through the books and papers on her table. “Here it is. I wrote it down as soon as I cold. H3207-B.”
“Okay.” Mom took the paper scrap. “We can request transcripts and history, and maybe figure out the cause.”
Alik nodded. She wanted that information anyway, and Mom could get it much faster than she could. She took a deep breath and slumped back on her pillow.
“I was kind of freaked out after that, so I went up on a rooftop to just, like, breathe for a minute.”
“You should have come home. Right away.”
“Mom. Seriously. If I ran home everytime something weird happens in this City…” Alik trailed off. This was an argument they’d had many times before and they never reached an agreement. They just gave up on the argument after a while.
“Anyway, I didn’t know what to do next. I was going to meet Rafe, but I was freaking out and felt weak so I found a place to rest.” She paused. “And then, I guess… I guess I blacked out. I must have ported, because I woke up in the Plaza.”
“The Plaza?” Mom’s eyebrows flew up. The Plaza, by any route, was many sections of City away from their home. Neither one of them went there routinely. It was far enough that Mom would have wanted a heads-up from Alik, first.
“Yes. Between a fish stall and a flower booth.” Alik wrinkled her nose. “I felt terrible from the port, so I got some food and rested for a while. When I felt okay, I came back home.”
“Yeah. I didn’t even look for Rafe. I was already exhausted and it took me forever to get back from the Plaza.”
Alik had stumbled in a little after their normal dinner hour and gone straight to bed. Mom looked hard at her for a moment, then stood, one fluid muscular movement. “Okay. I’m glad you’re okay. Come have some breakfast.”
Alik nodded. She waited until Mom’s footsteps were in the kitchen before she reached under the bed and pulled out a long, dingy metal box. The lid was dented but the lock worked. She opened it wide enough to look inside. There, on top of her journal and letters and a few photos, was a silver dagger with a ropy, twisted handle.
It had looked dull gray when she’d gotten back to the rooftop, panicked and out of breath. The roof was empty, the laundry lines pulled down. It was where she’d dropped it in the corner, no gleam, no gold swirls, pushed against the ledge of the roof. She picked it up with two fingers and slipped it in her inside pocket. She’d need to get a leather case or something. It was way too sharp to carry around in a pocket. Rafe could help with that. She turned and headed home, taking the easier route down the stairs and out the main exit. Exhaustion made her slow, and she didn’t notice the copper eyes gleaming in the stairwell.
. . .