by Josephine Goodman
First Published in Voices/ Future Tense Issue One (May 2006)
The vec was sharp bright lines, chrome plated. E didn't belong in the Oasis, no more than a knife belonged in flesh.
Vana sensed em, from her quietude, and briefly woke. On the farside of Vana's interface even her constructorpod blinked open a new eye, searching. I wanted no part of it. I hadn't yet discovered a way to make the barrier between us impermeable. I was beginning to doubt it could be done. After all, I was the newer self, Vana the original. Perhaps she was having second thoughts about my place in our mutual lives. She had every right to her dreams while our body was mine. But I didn't want to share them.
I called up inner reinforcement; nanites switched the chemical mix, and the boundary held. Vana slept as well as she ever did. All this silently, of course, while I played with the positions of the two moons, one violet, one cobalt, blending their colors until the lighting suited me.
Then I dimmed the lights beyond the stage, bringing deep night to the clientele in their surrounding pavilions. Even the loudest voices silenced — in anticipation, I liked to think. Though the presence of the tiger-splice bartender, passing subtly among them, nudged the more disorderly into appreciative demeanor.
The vec stood, leaning against the wall left of stage. E probably found even virtual sand distasteful. E had a head, but no face except for two sensor stalks, one of which, raised and bristling, gleamed in the faux moonlight. He might have been scanning specific frequencies. But for what? If any of the Oasis' patrons were running forbidden programs, that was their problem. Not the establishment's. But Welkin's port would have picked them up on entry.
Welkin was a proud new hab, controlled, but lowkey in authority figures.
Vana could more likely learn who e was, why e was here. But the Oasis wasn't her place. It was mine.
"You don't like them, do you, Wildefleur? The moment you saw em, some part of your suppleness froze. I could feel it, without even touching you." Devon's voice was soft, nearly whispering. He stood just behind me, as I viewed the behind-stage display. And he did touch me then, his fingers brushing the back of my neck, moving down along my spine.
"Vecs?" I smiled. "The situation is not as simple as liking or not liking. My situation I mean. But the Oasis isn't meant for them. It's an oasis for organics."
"That's the rumor." He nodded, as I turned from the display."It's why I came here. The place already has its reputation."
"And what about me? Do I have a rep too?" I was genuinely curious. But Devon just shrugged. Ah, a true gentleman. I stepped back and let my gaze rove over him. The smart fabric of his black tights and silver vest had stopped adjusting itself, his costume now a mirror image to my own. I nodded. "The look is right. Ready to dance?"
"With you — anytime."
Yes. Definitely a gentleman. Devon was the first partner with whom I'd offered to share the main performance. He'd been among several I'd chosen from last night's audience for brief improv duos. But I quickly realized he held special talent.
Now my left fingers flicked the music to a drum and guitar prelude, my right hand reached out and grasped his. Together we stepped onto the stage, and, beneath the two desert moons, began to dance.
My routine derived more from fantasy than from any distinct planetary culture. The fantasy was Vana's, I had to admit. But the detailed elaboration, the sensuous joining of movement to rhythm — that was mine. As we moved, our silver and black morphed rapidly, paling through violet, then darkening into purples and deepest blue. My arms rose and circled, my hands opening into slow lily-shapes to mime the fluting melody, while Devon dropped into a crouch. Then the subtle patterning of drums strengthened, leapt — and so did we, drawing shouts from the crowded pavilions. Hands clapped, feet stamped to the beat. I knew a moment of pure joy and triumph. Mine alone. So I thought.
In the next instant some signal passed from the vec into the artificial neural net twining my nervous system. It speared the barrier I'd meticulously created, revealing the foolishness of my endeavour. Vana woke and smiled in recognition, opening herself to em. Visions granted to her pierced my awareness. I knew then e was no mere enforcer of habitat law. The vec and I had this in common — we were no more than temporary constructs, bubbles rising and falling in a sea of greater plans.
The representation was a three-dimensional pict, sliced from terrible comlexity, the way e chose for Vana to see em. A spherical node with virtual patterns rippling across its skin, leading the two habs of es creation in orbit around the system's single gas giant. Beyond the Cloudmindfour node moved the skeletal structure of es newest hab, with its swarm of constructorbots. Vana's partial was downloaded into her bot, spewing fabricated diamondoid into one sector of an intricate design. To Vana, nothing was more beautiful than this. She gloried in the bot's power, its vacuum adapted senses and mobility. And even more, she adored the node mind's capacity for thought and creation.
"If that experience is so wonderful, why do I exist?" I questioned her, silently, holding our body's pose beneath the moons. Then anger fed into restlessness, and I triggered the music forward, hips snapping to a new beat.
"You're a youthful fantasy I'd left behind," she told me. "One that e wanted to explore. E's young, in es own way, and curious. During moments that seem years to me, between thoughts of es greater self, e has hobbies, avocations.
Hobbies. Curiosity. To that I owed my waking into life! The days and nights they'd allowed me. Finding the perfect spot to refurbish into Oasis. Even the music coursing through mind and body before I'd written it into the walls. At times I'd fooled myself into thinking I was more than her. I'd never guessed I lived so e could play at being young.
I danced nearer to the vec, my gaze flicking across its antennae, forested now with sensor nubs and wheels. Vana watched me and watched the vec, and drew me into her exaltation, as es distant patterns seemed to resonate to my dance. It was all illusion. I knew that. As did Vana. But the moment was special for her.
I held another pose. The noise of the crowd seemed far away. Then Devon spoke, his hands cradling my face, but his voice harsh. "I guess you like em after all." He backed away and jumped down from the stage. At Vana's command the music rose in tempo, veiling his dissonance, our severance.
I danced on, alone. Not alone.
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