“He was probably lying,” Howlaa said, after I’d explained.
“But not definitely lying,” Wisp said. “It’s possible.”
“Not probable,” Howlaa countered.
“This is Nexington-on-Axis,” Wisp said. “Home to sentient machines, hallucinogenic swamp gas, orbital love palaces, skinshifters, the Bodiless, and many other improbable things. With everything Miranda is doing for us, we have to try and help her, if there’s any chance her father is here.”
Howlaa rolled her eyes. “Of course we’ll try, I’m not saying that, I just don’t want her to be disappointed when it turns out the Regent was lying.”
“My Dad is dead,” I said. “I was at his funeral, even if his body wasn’t. I don’t expect miracles. But if I don’t try to find out, to make sure, I’ll always wonder. And I couldn’t stand that.”
“Fair enough,” Howlaa said. “We’ll beat the bushes, and we’ll beat the informants, and we’ll see what we can discover about the Regent’s favorite chef.”
Wisp said, “But we can’t go out at all until we get you disguised –”
“Is there any chance I can get a shower? I was gross two days ago, and that was before I got steamed in foil with my own sweat.”
“Ah. A shower? Not… as such. This used to be a live-work space, but the tenant was a large sapient reptilian, and his cleaning chamber is mostly composed of articulated scale-buffing arms –”
“Did it involve running water? At all?”
“No… though there was a stall for rinsing off slime-mollusks before shipping them to market, and it may still be functional.”
“At this point I’d settle for a sprinkler and a handful of sand to scrub myself with, Wisp.”
Howlaa tossed me a blanket to use as a towel, and handed me a cloth-wrapped bundle. “Change into those, not your nasty dirty clothes. Part of the disguise. And make it quick. The government isn’t going to overthrow itself.”
Wisp floated through the warehouse and I followed, around a ceiling-high stack of dusty black crates the size of ice cream trucks. They smelled like shellfish just starting to go bad.
The shower – or the closest local equivalent – was the size of a horse stall with a drain covered by an iron grate in the middle of the floor. Sparkling bits of opalescent shell fragment were scattered in the corners, and there were smears of thick green slime on the concrete walls. Worse than showering at summer camp. The only control was a knob about the size of a ship’s wheel, and there were nozzles everywhere, poking out from all sides. “Uh… is there hot water, do you think?”
“Doubtful. It’s unlikely the slime mollusks complained about the cold.”
I glanced at the swarm of glowing lights. “A little privacy?”
“Miranda, I don’t have a body, much less a body capable of feeling anything resembling lust for a barely post-pubescent female. And I’ve seen Howlaa nude in any number of –”
“Not the point!” I shouted. What did Howlaa always say? “Shushit! Go away! Shoo!” I flapped my hands at him, then looked at the jewelry on my wrists and fingers. “Is it okay to get this stuff wet?”
“The jump-engine can survive most imaginable extremes of pressure and temperature. I believe it is safe to assume it is also waterproof.”
“Good to know. Now float on.” I watched the swarm of lights drift away, though if he’d left a mote or two behind to spy on me, how would I know about it?
I sighed and started to undress, wincing at the way my clothes stuck to me, and trying not to notice the whiff of my armpits. I stepped into the shower and twisted the knob the tiniest of tiny bits.
The water shot forth in narrow streams from all directions, and it was so cold bits of my body went numb instantly. I howled and hopped in the spray, and almost ran for dry air, but I could feel the dirt running down off my body, so I gritted my teeth and tried to think warm thoughts, wishing for soap and shampoo.
I couldn’t stand it for more than a few minutes, but at least there wasn’t any crud caked on me anymore, so I twisted the knob off and stepped out, dripping. My teeth chattered as I wrapped the blanket around me and dried off.
The new clothes were crazy. Basically it was a black unitard body-stocking thing, not my usual style. Weirder, there were these dangly diaphanous purplish wings of cloth and wire attached to the shoulder blades, and a skirt sewn around the waist, only it was less a skirt and more a random spray of leaf-shaped green fabric streamers. There was a pair of glasses, too, with bulgy lenses all faceted like discoballs, but when I put them on it was just like looking through glass, only everything sort of sparkled, like the world had been doused with glitter. I pulled on the elbow-length gloves, which looked lumpy where the rings and bracelets bulged out, but at least hid the jump-engine from casual view.
I pushed the glasses up on my forehead – the sparkles were a bit much – and went back to the car/truck/whatever. “Guys, why am I dressed like an eight-year-old with a fairy princess obsession?”
“Just marking you as a member of a thriving subculture,” Wisp said. “The Minions of Mab, they call themselves – mostly human females, fairly young, who owe fealty and give adoration to our city’s one and only refugee from the land of mist and mirrors.”
“Help me out here. That didn’t clear anything up for me.”
“Mist-and-mirror people are sort of like skinchangers,” Howlaa said, “only they’re too lazy to change their skin, so they just change the way people perceive them. They’re telepathic, and our resident refugee picked up some sort of Faerie Queen imagery from a passing human girl, appeared to that girl in the form of an ethereal woman with wings and eyes like ice, and bam, she had the start of a cult. She claims to be Queen Mab of Faerie, snatched from the fields beyond the fields – stolen like a changeling, she says – but it’s all so much bullshit. She’s just another alien looking to make an easy living, and her minions keep her well-fed and comfortable. Her little darlings scurry around the city in droves, so you’ll fit right in, and no one will look twice at you.”
I tugged at the skintight fabric. “This sucks. I quit gymnastics when I was nine and I didn’t ever plan to put on one of these again.”
“Better to look silly and be free than to look good and be captured,” Howlaa said. “Speaking of…” She took a pair of scissors from the cab of the truck and snipped them at me. “You’ll need a shorter haircut to go with that. A purple one.”
I backed away. I’m not really vain about my hair – especially after this many days without washing – but pixie purple didn’t sound too flattering.
“The Regent has seen you, Miranda,” Wisp said. “It’s best if you aren’t instantly recognizable here, in the heart of his power.”
“Damn it.” I sat down. Howlaa snipped away professionally, and I tried not to sigh too dramatically at seeing my wavy dark hair fall to the floor in chunks. “Are you taking it all off?”
“Of course not,” Howlaa said. “I don’t have a razor, and I don’t want to blunt my knife’s edge on your head-stubble. Be still.”
“Is there a mirror in this place, so I can see what you’re doing to me?”
“Plenty of big glass windows once we get outside, Randy. You’ll get a look.” He took out a tube of temporary hair dye – it was even a brand name I recognized – and that was a relief, at least. Though with the lack of showers around here who knew when I’d be able to wash out the dye? Howlaa draped the blanket around me like I was at a hair salon and started working.
With so little hair left on my scalp it didn’t take long for Howlaa to get all the dye gel combed in. I wanted to reach up and touch my head, which felt about as fuzzy as a peach at best, but Howlaa slapped my hand away. “No purple fingers,” she growled. We waited fifteen minutes – I could tell it was killing Howlaa, just waiting, because she paced around and did push-ups and made fun of Wisp – and then Howlaa rinsed out my hair with the contents of a couple of bulb-shaped water bottles, purplish water sluicing down on the blanket. “All right, let’s see the whole effect,” she said.
I stood up, put on the weird glasses, and gave a little twirl, purple-haired and winged and feeling dumb, but, at least, not feeling much like myself.
“I don’t know,” Howlaa said. “The cheekbones are the same, the nose, the build, the gait won’t change, the space between the eyes is identical, the –”
“Pish,” Wisp said. I didn’t know exactly what “pish” means but it sounded like something British people would say to be condescending. “Ignore her, Miranda. Howlaa can change her body so radically that she doesn’t appreciate how effective more minor changes can be. Most sentients don’t look past the immediate surface, and your immediate surface is quite different now.”
“If you say so,” Howlaa said. “Time for me to make some changes too.”
I’d seen her transform several times already, but it wasn’t any less weird or fascinating this time – though I stepped back and widened my eyes when she finished. “One of those?”
“Yesh,” she said, sounding like a normal human voice that got run through a food processor or something. “One of theesh.” Howlaa had transformed into a Nagalinda, flat face, holes for a nose, mouth full of nasty teeth, eyes dead and big and watery, skin eel-smooth.
“No one bothers Nagalinda,” Wisp said. “They have an aggressive culture. More importantly, they can speak in human tongues, albeit heavily accented, so I won’t be stuck translating between you constantly.”
Howlaa’s shadow-suit shifted and spread out, becoming a shirt and pants… and then changing from fuzzy blackness to shiny blackness, switching texture to become some kind of dark leather. “Whoa! I didn’t know your outfit could do that!”
“The clozhe make the man,” Howlaa said. “Shadowcloth hash chameleon propertiesh. Perfect for an imposhter. I jusht usually don’t bother with the fiddly bitsh.”
“Aren’t we kind of an odd couple?”
“No one will think so. Your purple hair marks you as a high personage among the Minions of Mab, and those often have deadly bodyguards. Howlaa looks the part of just such a hired hand.”
Howlaa’s lipless mouth opened wider, showing off an extra row of teeth, and I figured it for a grin. She – he? it? – beckoned and I followed toward a tall wide door.
“Are you ready for your first glimpse of the heart of Nexington-on-Axis, Miranda?” Wisp said. “For the wonders and terrors beyond this door?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure I’ll manage.”
The first thing that hit me was the brightness – the nuclear sun seemed to shine brighter here, and my disco-ball glasses tinted automatically into sunglasses in the glare. Once my eyes adjusted I realized the light wasn’t just from the sun, but was partly reflection from the twisted mirrored skyscrapers that rose on either side of the warehouse. My eye could barely follow their curves, and they looked more like oversized blown-glass art than buildings. I tried to imagine the kind of creatures that might live there, and could only think of huge boneless things.
And this was only a side street. Howlaa led us out, onto the main drag, and it took every ounce of my cool not to gape and gawp like a hick on his first trip to the big city.
It’s funny, but the first thing I thought was, This is like Vegas, where we went once on vacation. They have the Eiffel tower and a pyramid and a Disney-looking fairy-tale castle and the Statue of Liberty and I don’t even remember what all else, jumbled up all near each other. The Nex was like an alien’s dream of the Vegas strip.
At a glance I saw:
A mountain made of glass or maybe ice, thirty stories high, and imprisoned at the center a frozen monster with red wings and a body covered in mouths and eyes, and the eyes were blinking. But the weirdest thing was all the apartments just chiseled into the mountain, with people (not humans, mostly) going about their business, all their walls transparent, all their actions on display, completely oblivious to anyone who might be watching them cook or pee or sleep or argue, and apparently unbothered by the thing at the heart of the mountain staring at them, too;
A lighthouse tilting at a scary angle in a patch of bubbling mud;
A geyser of foaming water shooting straight up into the air from the center of a lake, bigger than Old Faithful, with a huge cubical building bobbing on top of the spray, constantly on the edge of falling off, but never quite tumbling, and when I squinted I could see an elevator descending down through the center of the waterspout and vanishing into the lake;
The corpse of something the size of a whale, with flippers and big jaws but also little useless legs, the body shellacked or lacquered or something, with people going in and out of the gaping mouth, like they lived there;
Building-sized beehives filled with bustling figures in beekeeper outfits;
Cliff dwellings like the native Americans had in the desert, only these were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a couple of totally Old-West-looking buildings, one even with a sign that said “Saloon”;
And more, and more, and more. That was just what I saw on the couple of blocks around me. And that’s omitting the people.
Out in the provinces I’d seen weird stuff, sure, from lizard people to frogmen to Nagalinda to intelligent machines, but there hadn’t been all that many of anything, and I’d gotten the idea the Nex was sparsely populated… but I’d been in the equivalent of the badlands, the big empty spaces in Wyoming or something, and now I was in the middle of the city, with the city folk.
I did see a few girls dressed like me in unitards or leotards and stupid wings, with orange hair and green hair, and the one who passed by on my side of the street gave me a curtsy so deep I thought she was falling down. And there were a couple of Nagalinda, and more lizard people, and even a clattering machine-being or two, but – but –
Okay. Imagine you go to some really hopping part of a big city on a Saturday night – think of all the different kinds of people you might see. Old people going to the theater. Married guys out with their wives. Families hustling their kids home. Homeless people panhandling. Punks standing around smoking. Guys on skateboards. All those different types, you know? Now subdivide all those types by things like hair color and eye color and shoe size and every other arbitrary category you can think of, so that blue-eyed-old men with gray hair and loafers are a completely separate category from their green-eyed counterparts. Pretty big pool of different kinds of people, right?
Now imagine all of those different kinds of people are different species, some of them so totally non-human that you’re not even sure if they’re living things or weird sculptures until they start moving. We passed by conglomerations of rocks wearing shoes. Translucent slugs reading maps. A little dust devil spinning around some leaves and litter that I almost walked through until Howlaa grabbed me because, no, turns out that’s an Aeolian, a distant relative of Wisp’s race that shares the lack of a body but lacks the powers of possession and useful glowing. I swear we saw everything you can imagine and a lot of things you can’t, everything but a hyper-intelligent shade of the color blue and a sentient kitchen sink. Things like lizard-people and guys with the faces of deep-sea fish started to look awfully normal by comparison. I guess you really can adjust to anything.
“Here.” Howlaa pointed to the saloon, which was both a relief – because I didn’t want to go near the glass mountain, for instance – and kind of a bummer, because it did look really normal in a kitschy way, like something you’d see in a ghost town theme park, with cheap beer for the parents and sarsaparillas for the kids. There were hitching posts out front and there were things tied to the posts, but they weren’t horses, as even a non-horse-crazy girl like me could tell from the spines and the number of legs.
Inside matched the outside, with wooden tables and a piano with a drunk guy sleeping with his face on the keys and a bartender with a totally out-of-control mustache. Both human. There were no customers I could see. Wisp’s translating mote was still in my ear, and it whispered: “Tell him you’re here to see Templeton.”
“Barkeep. I’m looking for Templeton.”
The bartender raised one of his eyebrows, which was almost as bushy as his mustache. “You don’t look like a geargirl. One of those airy-fairy types. I thought your kind pretended to be allergic to anything mechanical. What do you want to see Templeton for?”
Howlaa growled. It even made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I knew I wasn’t in any danger from her.
The bartender raised his hands. “Say no more. Templeton doesn’t pay me enough to ask follow-up questions.” He picked up a black plastic phone from behind the counter and spoke briefly, then hung it up. “He’s not in.”
Another growl from Howlaa, followed by a cracking of numerous knuckles.
The bartender sighed. “And the room he’s not in is number 112, right up those stairs.”
Howlaa flipped something round and shining onto the bar, and the bartender made it disappear quickly. We headed up the stairs, and I whispered, “Was that money? I thought you guys all just stole from each other.”
Howlaa laughed, a harsh noise from a Nagalinda. “We barter. I gave him a token for the Incarnadine district. Home of legendary robo-prostit–”
“Howlaa!” Wisp said, and Howlaa gave a nasty cackle. Like I couldn’t figure out what he was going to say.
“That’s gross,” I said.
“The robots aren’t shentient, so they don’t mind the work,” Howlaa said. “Could be worshe.”
“I’m not sure this is appropriate conversation,” Wisp said.
“Thish ish a brothel, Wishp,” Howlaa said. “We passhed appropriate a long time ago.”
Wisp sighed. “I didn’t choose the meeting place.”
“So this guy Templeton is a pimp or something?”
“Jusht a schientisht,” Howlaa said. “With a tashte for shlumming.”
“Do try to avoid the letter ‘S’ while in this form, Howlaa. The lisp is distracting. You could have said Templeton has a ‘predilection for low company,’ for instance, and avoided both ‘taste’ and ‘slumming.'”
“Shushit,” Howlaa said, and at least that sounded the same as usual. The door to room 112 was wooden, but had a crazy lock with blinking lights and interlocking teeth. Howlaa knocked on the door, and when nobody answered, leaned close and whispered to the lock. The lights flashed and it clicked open. “Ha. That’sh the problem with artificially intelligent locksh. If you know how, you can threaten them into opening.” She pushed open the door and stepped inside. “Templeton! We’re here to talk about you-know-what.”
I followed, and the door swung shut behind me. I’d expected some kind of four-poster-bed in red velvet, but this was more like the back room of an electronics store after an earthquake, wires and gears and electronics piled on shelves and all over the bed. The curtains were drawn over the windows, and it was dark, but I could tell there was a guy sitting in a chair in the corner. He leaned forward into the range of Wisp’s glowing lights, and I couldn’t help it – even after all I’d seen here, I gasped.
“I thought you said this guy was human,” I said.
Templeton made a noise. I can’t say if it was a laugh or a snort of contempt or what. When he spoke it sounded like the monotonous disconnected tone of the default voice on a laptop: “Human? I still have pancreas, a spleen, and most of my skin. What DNA I still possess is human.” A pause. “Why, are you racist against cyborgs or something?”