Master Paranthany set the vase down delicately at the feet of Mr. Lurgess. Mr. Lurgess, for his part, rubbed his spongy hands together excitedly. Master Paranthany removed his velvet gloves and returned them to their pocket in his coat.
“How did you–” Mr. Lurgess sputtered out. “How did you find it again? It’s worth–”
“A fortune, yes.” Master Paranthany scratched his nose and moved to Mr. Lurgess’s prismatic windows. The cold light of dawn was covering the entire room apartment with bits of red and green and indigo. “Porcelain from the original Ming Dynasty is extremely rare in this day and age. It’s worth quite a bit, to the right person. Or it’s something to let flowers die in.”
“I must insist.” Mr. Lurgess scurried over to the window himself, almost tripping over his dressing gown. The colors that cavorted around his face did little to improve it, in Master Paranthany’s eyes; the little man still looked like a roast pig. “You must tell me how you found it! I know your agency is one of the best–”
“We are the best. You will find no better insurance company on any of the Five Worlds.”
“And you’re a credit to their investigators, Master Paranthany. But you must tell me. I thought for certain this would have been on the black market by now, exchanged through a dozen hands.”
“I am certain it has been. However, I was able to recover some dust from the vase’s former resting spot. With that, it was only a matter of finding the exact combination of molecules and paint patterns.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“I had copies made. Printed them right out back at the office. Flooded the market with them. Would take an expert to tell the difference, and even then, its extremely unlikely. In short, I made the thing totally worthless.”
“But that would take hundreds…”
“Millions, actually. Three point five. Most will find their way back to the office, and they’ll be used as base material for another hunt. Standard procedure really.” In one fluid motion, Master Paranthany reached into his pocket, withdrew a package of cigarettes, and shook one into his lips. “But there will be just enough to keep anyone from stealing that vase again. It is effectively worthless to anyone but you.”
“No smoking, please. It’s bad for my eyes.” Mr. Lurgess looked back and forth from the vase to Master Paranthany “But if you…does that mean…do I have…?”
“Well I suppose there’s only one answer to that question.” Master Paranthany lit his cigaratte and let an extravagant plume of blue smoke glide out of his lips. Colors formed unique patterns and shapes upon the surface of the smoke before it all dissipated. “How much is it worth to you?”
Mrs. Lansing slapped the back of Edwardâ€™s head. â€œWhat is this?â€ she asked, pointing at his computer pad.
â€œItâ€™s the site I built!â€ whined Edward, rubbing the back of his head.
His teacher tapped her foot and folded her arms tightly to her chest. â€œThat site looks like it was built by a program. Did you use a program to build that site?â€
â€œWell, yeah, but I-â€œ
She slapped the back of his head again. â€œYou donâ€™t listen to me, do you?â€
â€œI listen to you!â€ cried Edward.
â€œNo you donâ€™t. If you listened to me, you wouldnâ€™t build shitty sites using a program. But since you arenâ€™t going to listen to me when I tell you how to build a site, maybe you will listen to me if I tell you a little story. Do you think you could listen to a story Edward?â€
Edward winced, looking at her upraised hand. â€œYeah, yeah, I can listen to a story.â€ he said, shrinking in his chair.
â€œThis is about one of my former students. Her name was Melody. When she was born, the doctors said that she was a retarded autistic that would never walk. Her dad was raising her by himself, and he was always working or fucking his secretary, which was something he called working.
She had to go to school in one of those robotic suits, and all the other kids made fun of her and called her a cyborg and stole her computer and fucked with her robot suit, putting sand in her tank or glue in her metal knees. She had to go to special classes after school with the rest of the retarded autistics, and all the teachers treated them like they were big problems and a hassle and like they chose to be screwed up.
When it came available, she had to get gene therapy to replace the cells in her brain that were screwed up and the muscles in her body that wouldnâ€™t grow. And people say gene therapy is great, and itâ€™s a cure all, and itâ€™s a miracle, and sure it is if youâ€™ve been born with everything working, but even people who need to get a single finger replaced know that it hurts, it hurts worse then hell because you are supposed to be grateful, and if they are messing with your brain you see visions of things, things you donâ€™t get, half made memories and fake shit, dreams like horror movies, and all the while you are changing and in pain.
Thatâ€™s what she went through, and while that was going on she put her nose in her screen and learned to code, and not code like you do playing with your little pictures in those nice little games that help you make those standard little webpageâ€™s that look so pretty, just fucking like everybody elseâ€™s. She learned real code, hard code, the languages that make things go, right down to the root, those words that make things light up and become something wild, something to make people shake, those langagues that bridge the gap between men and the machines that run them, and that makes her a master, and that makes her in control of the machines, which makes her human. More human than you will be, because the machines run you now, and unless you learn what makes them work, unless you work them, you are their slave. You want to be a slave to the machines Edward ?â€
â€œDo you want to be human?â€
â€œThen get to work.â€ Mrs. Lansing slapped him again, for good measure.
The last time I saw Alnersans was back when I owned a bar. We used to joke that Alnersans always brightened up the place, due to the lights implanted on his arm.
Alnersans had 6 LEDs crawling out of the flesh of his left forearm. I asked him about them once; he told me that they were his six closest friends. The LEDs were tied to their iDents, and Alnersans would talk about them as if they were the people themselves.
“Now, Shirl,” he would say, pointing to a LED that flickered noticibly in the bar’s dim light. “She’s not doing too well. Doctors ain’t givin’ her much time, but when do they ever? Better pour one for me and one for Shirl, on account she can’t join us.”
While I knew Alnsersans back in college, I never saw him so much as when I served alcohol for living. About a month before the bar closed, Alnersans seemed to vanish. I thought about taking the iDent he paid his tab with and entering in a hospital query or plugging in a GPSearch, but I never did. He hadn’t given me his iDent to use in that way, anyway.
I thought on him every now and then, but I didn’t expect him to show up. When my door read his iDent soon as he stepped on the welcome mat and said it was him, I about fell out of my chair.
“Hadn’t seen you in a while, Alnersans.”
“Your bar’s been torn down.”
“I didn’t. Coulda told me. I liked your bar. Can I come in?” I offered him a beer and he took it hungrily, draining the bottle in seconds.
“You want another?”
” You make such a great bartender. This is why you shouldn’t have closed the bar.”
“People change” I said. I noticed that, of the six LEDs, only one remained. Alnsersans gently fingered the ragged maw of scars that surrounded them, as if he was reminding himself they were still there.
“That they do. I’ve learned that, here recent.” Without warning, without a change of expression or twitch of his body, Alnersans smashed his empty beer up against my end-table, Alnersans then took one of the slivers of glass and gouged out the last of the LEDs, Despite wincing from the pain, Alnersans let out a low chuckle as the glow of the light slowly faded. “Serves you right, you son of a bitch. Serves you right. Sorry about the mess,” he said, turning to me.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You’re a good friend,” Alnersans said. “I see that now.”
Muddy came over to Chrisâ€™s studio apartment on Saturday afternoon. He came with his old guitar wearing his mismatched black thrift store clothes. Chris plugged his ears directly into his music system, and they both played, but since they couldnâ€™t hear each other, it wasnâ€™t much different from being alone. Muddy seemed to be in a meditative state, while Chris was in a state of artistic agitation, more so since the sale of his music files were slipping.
â€œThe problem with music.â€ said Chris, disconnecting his cranial implant from his music system. â€œIs that there arenâ€™t any big stars anymore.â€
â€œHow do you mean?â€ asked Muddy, rubbing his guitar pick between his fingers.
Chris scratched the blond stubble on his face. â€œVideo killed the radio star man. Internet killed the video star. There arenâ€™t any big music celebrities, havenâ€™t been since the big record companies folded.â€
Muddy shrugged, leaning over his acoustic guitar. â€œOh, I donâ€™t know, Visual Purple is doing pretty well.â€
Chris rolled his eyes. â€œVisual Purple? Muddy, they’re not doing any better than you are!â€
â€œIâ€™m doing pretty well.â€
Muddy was selling enough music to buy food and pay rent on his tiny apartment. He played an antique acoustic guitar, which was so old that part of the box had rotted off giving the instrument a sour sound. Muddy had an appeal among a certain kind of intellectual who enjoyed the unique sounds of his bitter guitar.
â€œThatâ€™s not what I mean.â€ said Chris, avoiding the topic of his friends modest success. â€œSure, Visual Purple is selling music, and itâ€™s selling well, but if you went out on the street right now, do you think that if you asked any random person that would know who Visual Purple is?â€
â€œProbably not.â€ admitted Muddy.
â€œBack in the day, we had big stars like Elvis and Aretha Franklin and Jonathan Coulton, people who made big money, who were worshipped by their fans. Now weâ€™ve got all these little players, barely making it by.â€
Muddy looked up from his bitter guitar. â€œWell, we may not have big stars anymore, but now weâ€™ve got thousands of them, constellations. Now weâ€™ve got the whole night sky.â€
Churos went there alone, although he was surrounded by a scattered platoon of guards and officers all charged with the task of escorting the 5’8″ teenager to court. When the doors to the court opened, it was clear that the media circus was in full swing.
The smile that drew across his lips made some of the officers uncomfortable, but they held ground and continued escorting him to his position before the judge. Media reporters and those coming to see the show began to fall quiet even before the mallet had come down to call order to this place.
With cuffed hands, the teen remained standing before the judge who glanced down past round glasses to the seemingly ordinary defendant.
“Churos DeSoto, you have been found guilty in accordance with United Earth law of refusing to pay taxes, breaking curfew on seven accounts, and assaulting of an officer. Do you have anything to say for yourself before I sentence you, young man?”
That smile never left Churos’ face. His head lifted and he blew a strand of hair from his brown eyes. “Yeah.”
The court went silent, eager to hear his response, but the next sound that met their ears was the clanking of metal cuffs against the floor. Churos’ hands had not moved, nor had he lowered his hands beneath the podium at which he stood.
Police and guards were quick to rush the boy, yet they found their task difficult. Their grabs and shoves found only air, though the boy was clearly visible. They pulled their weapons and leveled them at the kid, and the silent standoff lasted several seconds before the judge called order. The presiding arbiter had a frightful look on his face, which would only be worsened by what the boy would say next.
“You’ve all heard the rumors, and maybe some of you know someone like me. We are here now, and we’re not going away. I’m not going to jail, your honor. I’m not going anywhere except where I want to.” The teen turned to look around at the circle of officers pointing guns at him.
“I allowed myself to be taken here because I want to bring a message to the people. Stop living trivial. Stop picking at everything you see that doesn’t fit your mold. Myself and others like me won’t conform to you, and you won’t get rid of us with bullets or force.”
In a moment of clarity a reporter blurted out amongst the pin-drop silence, “What are your demands?”
Churos turned to her and smiled. “Trust us.”
With that he turned and walked through the eastern wall onto the street. No one stopped him, no one flinched and no one knew what would happen next. For now, the game was in the hands of those like Churos DeSoto.
Matthias bounded up the mossy hill towards the cave. It had been six years since he had last seen his master. He had often found Aupta meditating in the cave when he was her student. He could picture her perfectly, curly red hair, a yellow tunic, her silver sword balanced across her knees.
There was a tiny girl inside the cave, about four or five years old. Her hair was pulled up in a cloth knot, and her bangs were cut bluntly along her forehead. She wore a white slip.
He bowed. “I am looking for Aupta.”
“Matthias.” she said his name, rolled it over in the mouth of the cave. Her little feet were bare on the stones. One of her knees was skinned and bleeding.
Matthias held his breath and counted the names of the planets he had visited silently. The little girl waited. Finally Matthias spoke. “Aupta?”
“I am Aupta. I am Auptas daughter Rille. We exist as one.”
Matthias gripped the handle of his sword. “Then she is dead.”
“The body of Aupta is in the mountain. I am her life now. I am the life of her daughter. We are merged, we are one.”
â€œTake me to her.â€
â€œYou are with her.â€ The girl shrugged, in the way little girls seldom do. â€œI can take you to where the body is marked.â€
They walked over the mossy mountain. There was a cherry tree weeping leaves into the soft wet breeze. The petals clung to Matthiasâ€™s dark cloak. There was a mound of stones at the top of the hill. Matthias knelt beside it and touched his fingers to his head.
â€œShe isnâ€™t there.â€ said Rille. â€œAupta is with me.â€
â€œHer memories are with you. Aupta is dead.â€
â€œYou were always my most frustrating student.â€ said Rille and Matthias turned around. The girls face was wet with mist.
â€œI was never your student.â€
The little girl grinned. She was missing a tooth. â€œCome at me Matthias.â€
â€œI donâ€™t attack children.â€
â€œYou were always a prude.â€ She sighed. â€œYou need to know who I am. You must know, so that you can know yourself.â€
â€œI donâ€™t want to play these games.â€
â€œThis isnâ€™t a game. This is who I am now Outlaw Matthias.â€
â€œI am not an Outlaw any longer.â€
â€œYou will always be an Outlaw.â€ said the girl. â€œ The ship you landed at the temple was stolen, your sword was taken in a duel. You are a thief, a deceiver. Your father was an Outlaw. You are an Outlaw too.â€
Matthias whirled around â€œDonâ€™t you dare.â€ he said, coming towards her. â€œDonâ€™tâ€™ you dare provoke me. You left me! You left me and died and I canâ€™t follow you!â€ He brought his hands down to the girl. â€œYou are a ghost!â€
Rille swept her tiny foot around his ankle and pulled his arm. Matthias lost his footing on the wet moss and slammed hard into the ground. He lay on the ground, looking at the bright grey sky. Rille leaned over him, her hair falling forward.
â€œIâ€™m still your Master Matthias.â€
The mist fell on Matthiasâ€™s face. â€œYou are still my Master.â€ He said.
â€œMatthias. I had to go. My time had come and gone. Not even mountains live forever. All must change.â€ She turned around towards the rocky path down the mountain. â€œLetâ€™s go back.â€ she said.
Matthias followed her down the mountain. Her movements were strange, graceful in her leaps and fumbling in her landings. She stumbled on the slick rocks and blinked back tears. She pounded a tiny fist on the rocks, and pushed herself up.
â€œThis body. It doesnâ€™t always do the things I remember.â€ she said, staring at her scratched hands. Matthias leaned down and opened his arms. His master allowed him to lift her up, to hold the part of her that was a child. They went back to the temple together.