I knew the children had no names, though I didn’t understand it. Far had tried to explain it to me, but this was one barrier our strides in communication could not quite breach. She would always be of the city, and I an interloper. In the park, sitting on either side of the silent boy, you could have told that just from looking at us: Far in her machine-tailored suit jacket, me in my worn jeans and patchy self-applied buzz cut. Only one of us fully human, or so I’d been taught.
From the emotions flickering over their faces, I assumed she and the boy were engaged in silent conversation—or whatever the casters called it, since they insisted there were no words. I wasn’t sure how letting the boy pick a name he’d never use was supposed to help with his tutoring lessons, but Far had insisted—said it would give the kid something to brag about to his friends. Personally, I doubted any of our pupils ever spoke a word outside of our sessions. Still, I figured there were things she wasn’t telling me, or was unable to tell me as a result of what she would sardonically call my ‘impairment’. But I’d learned when to stop asking questions long before I set foot in the city itself.
Far sat at the boy’s side, leaning over his shoulder to scan the list of names with a kind, flavorless smile. The thermal regulators set at intervals along the grass softened the spring chill, warping the air around them with distortions of heat. The book propped up on the boy’s grass-stained knees was made with real paper, a relic Far must have tracked down from some obscure online dealer. When I first came to the city, I probably would have taken offense at the laziness of that stereotype; it wasn’t as if my sort hated technology. I said nothing. I’d been here long enough to know how these things went.
“Pine,” Far said aloud. I’d gotten so used to the silence that the sound of a human voice was uncanny. “You like that name?” She met my eyes as she spoke. She always did, as if seeking out my approval, my appraisal of her accent, or maybe because really I was the one she was speaking to. The boy did not look up.
After that Far gave up on speaking in a way that I could perceive. I could hear the chirping of birds, the distant whisper of traffic drifting through the city’s floating thoroughfares. Down the hill, children were tumbling over the playground like seed pods caught in a wind flurry, running pell-mell over the grass, hauling themselves up by their skinny arms and swinging back and forth on the hovering metal bars which always dipped lower before their strength gave out. Not one of them spoke, though at intervals they laughed at something I could not hear. They moved like images on a screen, detached from sound. From the dog park down the hill, a single low bark seemed to ride up to us on a vast wave of silence. Even the animals were quiet, well-trained. I kept quiet too.
“Well, that settles it,” Far said at last. “Do you want to tell Vaun your name?”
At long last the boy looked up and met my eyes. “Kite,” he said. His accent was much stronger than Far’s, and the word sounded garbled on his unpracticed tongue. I’d learned to stop correcting him. That was Far’s job. My job was to be a novelty and a prop.
“That’s a nice name,” I said. “What made you pick it?”
“The book had a picture.”
“Like the bird, or the toy?”
The boy stared at me blankly for a long time before turning back to his teacher. In my pocket, my handheld buzzed an anxious tattoo of notifications. Probably the family group chat; the thought, sudden and cold, that it might be Nan gave me pause. Maybe my strange companions wouldn’t mind if I pulled out my handheld in the middle of a session. They lived in a sea of notifications, after all; other people’s thoughts and intentions were the air they breathed. Still, I had some sense of professional decorum. I ignored it for the time being.
Far waited patiently for a moment before saying; “Aloud, please. It’s important to practice.”
The boy—Kite, now, I supposed—did not sigh, but the conversation expected it. “How can one word mean more than one thing?”
Always so strange, to hear them vocalize. The words were correct enough, but something was missing in the speech itself, a lack of understanding or practice. She watched the boy, her expression unchanged. I noted her professionalism even if I didn’t admire it. “It’s rude not to include someone in the conversation.”
“Not my fault she can’t hear us.” The more petulant he grew, the more natural his speech sounded. He looked at me then, full of that total stillness I could never convince myself wasn’t hiding something else beneath. I met his gaze, trying not to make it a challenge, failing. Casters had no taboos against extended eye contact, and so we inspected each other for much longer than I could be comfortable with. I found myself studying his left eye for a glint of the thing behind it.
When he spoke at last, his expression did not change. “I’m sorry I was rude. I want to keep learning how to speak.”
I wondered whether Far was feeding him the right words to say. Even that might be more effort than I should expect from her. “That’s okay. Learning a language can be frustrating.”
The boy’s emotions moved over his face like storm clouds: doubt, irritation, boredom. But he still nodded—stiff, formal—and said, “Especially now that there’s only one.”
I blinked. “Well, there are quite a few spoken languages. We’re speaking English right now, but many people speak Spanish, Chinese—”
His face did not change, but I heard Far sigh again. “No, you will only need to learn a single language to satisfy your extra-curricular requirement. Now, let’s move on to the vocal warmups.”
After the boy had been sent on his way, picked up by a sleek black car that lifted away from the park and into the transit loop above, Far and I settled at one of the park’s many benches. She did this with the metal barrel of a cig between her lips, unlit as of yet, but placed there as soon as there was no chance of the boy or his chaperone seeing it. Her lips curled more easily around it than they did around her professional smile.
“Those aren’t real names, you know. They’re just words,” I said, hating this urge to fill the silence and yet unable to resist it.
“Your ‘real’ names are just words.”
“Oh, well that’s alright, then.” Far took a drag from her cig. “Let the kid have something to tell his parents.”
Skirting the edge of a familiar argument, I decided to retreat. “How’d you pick your name?”
“Opened the dictionary and put my finger down at random.” I doubted that. She’d probably done it a few times, until she found one she liked. The state of being distant. Words and sound still meant something, no matter what the casters liked to pretend.
In the lull of conversation, I slid my handheld from my pocket. Tocsin’s name blinked up at me, but I caught Far staring at me and quickly put it away. She had whisked aside the benevolent placidity of her teaching facade as soon as the cig touched her lips. Now she just looked tired. The park was utterly silent but for the faint hum of the thermal regulators and the distant rumble of cars, the running footsteps of the voiceless children.
The tip of Far’s cig flared green as she contemplated me. She might have spoken my language, but the way she looked at me was common to every caster I’d met—all overt, unfiltered feeling. No point keeping emotion off your face when everyone around you could skim it off the top of your biodigital cloud. A world without privacy, and thus without shame. Though sometimes Far’s expressions were tinted by a more subtle quirk of her lips or eyebrow, or a sly look I couldn’t quite read: expressions of a hidden interiority I liked to think she’d picked up from me. I sometimes wondered if she sent thoughts my way on impulse, a sleet of hellos and goodbyes and questions and jokes that slid off me without my knowledge.
It was that kind of thinking that made me doubt my choice sometimes, the thought of all those words and feelings falling mutely around me in a void I couldn’t even feel. But then I’d remember what Nan always said: that the soul wasn’t meant to be passed around like a cup of moonshine. How could there be trust without secrets?
Her arm over the back of the park bench shifted to where it didn’t quite touch my back, but might have if I leaned back just a little. Again my handheld buzzed against my leg, but if I took it out now, Far would assume I was brushing her off. And, well, I had my own expectations about how this afternoon was going to end.
“How long before you have to go back?”
Before answering, I leaned over to pluck the cig from her lips and raise it to my own, breathing in the taste of— “Soap?” I said, making a face as I handed it back.
Far grinned. “Cilantro. New flavor.”
“I can see why no one thought of it before.” But then I leaned back against the softness of her coat sleeve resting on the back of the bench and said, “Long enough.”
After we were done, I peeled my cheek from the rise and fall of Far’s rib cage with a sound like pulling off a piece of tape. The temperature modulator hummed busily from the ceiling, dumping a waterfall of chilly air into the otherwise stuffy room, turning my bare skin clammy. Far said nothing as I unspooled myself towards the other side of the bed where the glass of water always sat. Far watched me; I didn’t need augmented mental senses to feel her eyes on the curve of my spine.
It had started with an argument about Borges, one of his collections Far was ‘muchly surprised’ I hadn’t read. I’d taken issue with her tone and openly doubted that she owned a copy. By the time we got back to her place, I’d forgotten it entirely. I probably shouldn’t have let things continue, but I was never very smart about that sort of thing. Far was available, attractive, and not from the compound, which made things both simpler and more complicated in a way that excited me. And it was a little cute, the way Far spoke; the ornate synonyms and slurring pronunciation, the accent of one who still tasted the words like they were new.
When I looked back, she had tucked one arm behind the back of her head, displaying a dark tuft of hair trimmed to a fashionable length. I couldn’t imagine Far doing anything that wasn’t fashionable. Her eyes were soft as a piece of fruit that you wouldn’t want to eat. She opened her mouth and I braced myself for some brutal insight brought on by the candor of the afterglow.
But what she actually said was, “Can I have some of that water?”
I tipped my head back and drained the glass while holding her eye.
Far sighed. “You’re a dick. Is that the right word here? Or would asshole be more appropriate?”
I got up to refill the glass from the nodule on the wall, cool water chilling the glass cupped in my fingers. When I brought it back to her and settled it on the soft dampness of Far’s stomach, she sucked in a sharp, relishing breath.
“Neither,” I said. “I’m very considerate.”
“Hm. You have your moments.”
The bob of her throat as she swallowed seemed to move inside of me, too. But what sank into the pit of my stomach wasn’t an echo of the unspoken vows we’d been mouthing into each other’s bodies for the past hour and a half. Only then I remembered my handheld’s frequent buzzing. I fumbled it off the bedside table and was greeted with a storm of notifications. I swiped through them quickly, sliding them across the cool glass like oil over water, and all of them from Tocsin.
Hey dickhead I need to talk to you about smthn
turn your handle on or I’ll tell Nan about your porn
For real, where are you?
Vaun, I’m serious.
Let me know when youll be back…
And then, two hours later: everything’s fine but please come talk to me when you can and please don’t ask anyone else about me.
“Shit,” I said aloud.
Far shifted against the covers. “Something wrong?”
Thirty-two messages total. If something truly dire had gone down, I’d have heard from more people—I’d have heard from Nan. Tocsin was more brother than cousin to me, but he was also an impulsive little shit, and always dealing with one self-manufactured personal crisis or another. It was probably about a girl, or a wrecked car. Probably nothing at all.
“Not sure,” I said, sitting back down on the bed. “I should probably go.”
Far turned to look at me. The way she used her eyes sometimes, it made me understand what casting was. “You know, maybe you wouldn’t have to run around so much if you were making enough money to actually live on.”
“You have some new clients for me?”
“I’m not talking about the tutoring. I’m talking about an actual job. If you were willing to use a temporary implant, they’d have no objection—”
“Not an option.”
“Why not?” Anger sparked in Far’s eyes; any attempt to hide it would have been alien to her. “I’m not going to argue with you about your aversion to implantation tech, I know that’s no use.” Knew that from long experience. “But a temporary one, Vaun? What’s wrong with that? You wouldn’t even have to tell anyone else—”
“And when I conveniently started making the kind of money that only comes from working at a caster place?” Most businesses these days would reject you out of hand as soon as they found out you didn’t have an implant. A slurry of words: company culture, transparency, workflow. Who wouldn’t want to hire an employee you never had to give a drug test, and whose productivity you could track just by sitting in the same room?
“Shit. This isn’t how I wanted to tell you.” She rolled over to the other side of the bed, waved the drawer of the nightstand open and dipped her hand into its darkness to withdraw a small glass vial with a dead worm inside. No, not dead; as she moved it towards me it gave a feeble twitch in its sterilizing liquid. Even from here I could see the way the mouth of the tube was shaped to fit perfectly against the socket of an eye, forming a perfect seal for the gel to settle against lid and lash before the digital tunneler did its work.
“It’s a biodegradable model,” Far said. In her voice, she had already won. “About a three-month half-life. They’re actually more expensive than the permanent ones, you know. And if you’d just apply for a job that would cover—look. That doesn’t matter. With this, I could have something lined up for you in a matter of days. Something that would actually pay. And I could help you. Tell you what to expect, coach you through the effects.” She shifted closer. It struck me in a distant way that this little scene was exactly what Nan had probably envisioned when I told her I got a job in the city. She’d always said that corruption would be seductive.
I pulled away.
Before Far could reach for me, I was out of the bed, shoving various limbs into various articles of clothing, hoping I matched up the right holes.
“Vaun. Wait. Wait.” Far stumbled out of bed after me, flailing for a robe at its foot that she only managed to get half on. I couldn’t tug my boots on before her hand settled on my shoulder. “Listen. I wasn’t trying to offend you—”
“You have no idea what you’re asking me to risk.”
“God damnit, Vaun, that’s because you never tell me!”
“There are plenty of things about me that you wouldn’t understand.”
“If you had the implant, I wouldn’t have to—” She cut herself off before I could do it for her. Far’s face was flushed. She didn’t fight the tide of her anger. There was something comforting in knowing that for all the teeming life that existed beneath the surface of her, at least that surface couldn’t lie.
“Alright,” she said, and just like that the anger began to fade. “Alright. Just—this is an option, alright? I got it for you. And it’ll be waiting, whether you change your mind or not.”
I watched her cross the room and put the thing back into the drawer. When she turned to me, she didn’t bother to pull her robe shut, and I didn’t bother not to look.
“Stay a little longer?” she said. There were times when she really could speak like a natural. But even as she stepped forward and leaned in, my eyes stayed open, on that bedside drawer. Visions of her holding it over my eye socket as I slept played with the gruesome relish of a slasher film. When she pulled back, I couldn’t shift my eyes back fast enough.
“Gotta get back,” I said, and her mouth did that thing that was almost a smile. Casters never were good at faking expressions.
“I just want to help,” she said, and that was the worst part.
I leaned in to kiss her again, closed-lipped right up until the end, because I knew I’d want to be back here and wouldn’t want to spend the next time putting out the fires I left burning today. Her fingers curled in the fleece-lined collar of my jacket, the grip light and brittle as the dry curl of the thing in the vial. I let it linger before pulling away. I was pretty good at tolerating things by now.
I scrolled through Tocsin’s messages as the train slid free of the glass sheath at the edge of the city and began to pick up speed. On my way back. You good? I waited five minutes, refreshing my handheld, before slipping its cool weight back into my pocket. I almost pinged Tocsin’s sister Coxcomb, but I knew better than to start asking around before I knew what Tocsin had gotten himself into.
The compound was only the last stop on the rail line in the loosest sense of the term. In reality you had to get off at the industrial district and walk another two miles down a road that was more weed than asphalt, cross-hatched with tar that could never hold the bursting cracks closed for long. Eventually you got to a chain link gate with a keypad—not exactly friendly, but we’d had our share of teenage casters prowling the perimeter, always in packs, silent, sometimes lobbing a rock or can of beer over the fence. No one else came out here, no one kept track of us, no one cared what was done to us or what we did to each other. I punched buttons so worn any idiot could probably guess the code, and stepped inside.
I could hear it before I saw it, the threads of noise breaking through the quiet like lightning in a summer storm. High raucous laughter, shouts of greeting or admonition, the clatter of doors and feet and conversations. I made my way down the central road through town, raising my hand to a few passing groundcars which honked at me as they crunched over the gravel. This time of day, most people were sitting out on their porches to watch the street, tinny songs blaring on their radios, the ice in their glasses clinking. More than a few had patches over their eyes.
The commotion on the Lin family’s porch stopped me short before I reached my place. The usual crowd was gathered there, but today it didn’t seem friendly. People lingered on the lawn to watch and listen and comment to their friends—arguments were a spectator sport. I couldn’t make out the words, but I didn’t really have to. I just had a hard time believing anyone in that household would have gone and put that thing in their head, knowing the consequences. I kept walking, grateful no one saw me and called me over to join them. I had to be careful about sharing my opinion on this kind of thing. People tended to assume I was biased, seeing as I worked in the city and was probably halfway to contaminated as a result. Nan certainly seemed to think so.
The lights were on in my house as I made my way up the path, and I could hear the sound of clanging pots and voices inside, the familiar hiss of the old oven. Grandpa Heimal was in his chair on the porch, as he always was unless someone forgot to wheel him out. The socket of his left eye clung to the shadows like a cave. He’d been one of the early-adopters, and he’d paid for it. By the time talk of malfunctions started slipping past the NDAs and corporate cover-ups, the implant had scrambled Heimal’s brain from the inside out.
Nan did what she could for him, and for the others she found who’d been through the same. I sometimes wondered whether she left his hollowed-out eye socket uncovered as a reminder to all the rest of us. That was certainly Nan’s style. I squeezed his shoulder as I walked to the door, and murmured a quick hullo, Grandpa the way a Buddhist might turn the prayer wheels in passing.
From the moment I stepped inside, I was surrounded by warmth and light and familiar voices, so loud I could scarcely hear myself think as I took off my coat and my hat.
“Vauneant’s back!” someone in the kitchen cried, and seconds later I was pelted at knee-height by a bundle of niece, grinning up at me from her grip around my knees.
“We’re making lasagana!” Cispontine squealed.
I bent down to scoop her up, forcing an easy smile. “That’s my favorite!”
“Vaun,” my sister’s voice called from the kitchen, “Get in here and make sure the vegetables don’t burn.”
Dutifully I trooped toward her voice, Cispontine on my hip. I could only glance at the stairs that led to the bedrooms before stepping into the kitchen. It was already packed in there, my cousin Snowbrowth fanning the smoke away from the detector, Cispontine’s older sister sitting on the counter picking at the chips and dip, while uncle Groak tried to harangue her into helping peel vegetables.
“Did you hear about the Lins?” someone said in my ear, but no, I hadn’t heard, and it was too loud to have it explained to me. Everyone was talking at once and I could hardly make out a word of it, and didn’t need to try.
A couple times I checked my handheld. Still no response. I couldn’t help but glance at the ceiling, the only thing which separated me from Tocsin’s room. It seemed to sag toward me with the weight of whatever had happened. But I couldn’t get away now without questions, and those could be dangerous around here.
At last, lasagna came out of the oven and the vegetables were oversalted, and Coxcomb finished doling out a healthy portion onto a plate and arranged it neatly on a tray.
“Take this up?” she said, as she always did, and for once I was glad to do it.
The stairs sighed under my boots as I made my way up. Nan’s room made up the entire third floor, perched up top of the rest of the house like a watchtower. From up here you could see the entire compound, the endless green sprawl of forest and the glitter of the city on the horizon. Nan looked up from her work as I came in, her cane hooked on the edge of her workbench and small wire-frame glasses perched on her nose like something from an old digital film. She was the only person I knew alive who still used glasses; surgical eye correction was one modern amenity that the rest of us had all conceded to, but Nan said it was a manipulation of natural flesh, too close to changing who she was. Her glasses should have made her look sweet, old-fashioned; instead they focused her hard gaze into something that could have set the dried pages of Far’s book alight.
I didn’t look at the curtain in the back of the room, pulled closed against the makeshift surgery, and I didn’t breathe through my nose. Still, the hint of chemicals prickled at my nose, imagined or not. This was the room where they did it—behind the curtain, the cot with disposable sheets and the blinking medical equipment, scrounged from outdated tech. Everything Nan might need to pull a long, biotech strand from a wayward eye socket. There was always a choice, of course, for anyone caught with an implant: take the operation or never come back.
“Nan,” I said.
“Vauneant.” She straightened, laying her soldering iron back in its cradle. I couldn’t make sense of the wires and old-fashioned circuit boards in front of her. A piece of the temperature regulator, maybe. Nan was good at taking things apart and putting them back together to her own specifications. She’d been a doctor, before the compound; that fact had been one of the first to impress itself on my young mind. The use of old-fashioned computers, she’d taught herself out of necessity.
“Back from the city?” she said, with polite disapproval.
I stepped forward to put the tray on the table beside her. Her hair was the color of surgical steel where it caught the white light of her desk lamp. “Someone has to make sure those layabouts don’t starve you.”
Nan smiled, but her eyes still studied me the way they studied everyone. No one discussed the idea of moving her to a room downstairs. This had been her throne room as long as anyone could remember, and nothing short of death would unseat her from it.
Nan picked up the soldering iron again, and leaned over the pine-green circuit board. “Hear about the Lin boy?”
“Heard something happened. Not what.”
A little line of smoke appeared from beneath the thin metal tool, curling up towards the hard shine of her glasses. She didn’t specify, and I knew what that meant. What else of importance could happen to us here?
“It was just one of the temporaries, thank God,” Nan said after a moment. “Just a matter of waiting for it to drain out of him. Still, the weakness revealed itself. His family will need to be diligent.”
From what people told me of the time four decades ago, Nan had always been hard even when her face was soft. Maybe that was how she’d pulled this community around her like meat wrapped around bone, after she lost Heimal in all the ways that counted; and why our family out of all the rest was one of the few in the compound that hadn’t turned up some wayward son or daughter who decided to put a biocomputer in their head. Ever since I’d gotten the job with Far, Nan had started looking at me like a sheep dog might look at a ewe with a limp.
“I’m sure they’ll set him straight,” I said, and Nan nodded, satisfied; she bent back over her workbench, and I knew I was dismissed.
Down the stairs once more, the air seemed easier to breathe. Tocsin’s door was at the end of the hall, shut. I went to my room, loudly kicked off my boots, and made the rest of the way barefoot down the beaten-up runner. I knocked twice with one knuckle, soft as a branch tapping a window. There was no reply. I entered silently.
Tocsin lay in bed looking like he should be in the middle of an impact crater. He blinked up at me, barely able to raise his head as I closed the door softly behind me. He looked as young as he’d been when we rode down the stairs on our pillows, and as shell-shocked as when his head met the bottom bannister.
One of his eyes was bruised, the white of it gone painfully red.
“Hey, Vaun,” he croaked.
I let out a slow breath as I settled next to him on the bed. For a minute we just sat there, turning over the silence between us like it was a puzzle that together we could somehow pick apart.
“Sure hope you didn’t let anyone see you looking like that,” I said after a while.
“I’m not an idiot, thanks.”
“Would a smart person go and do what you just did?”
“I needed the work. We needed it,” Tocsin said. Though we kept our voices low, I could hear the bitterness creeping in at the edges.
“At least tell me it’s temporary.”
“How the hell was I supposed to afford one of those?”
I put my head in my hands. “God damnit, Tocsin.”
“What else could I do, huh? How long am I supposed to sit around all day watching Mom and Coxcomb live off canned protein and nutrient pills because none of us can get a job?”
“You think they’d be happier to know you went and did the one thing Nan would run you out of here for? You know the rules, Tocsin—”
“Yes, I know, Jesus, I know.” Tocsin put a hand over his eyes, hiding the inflamed one from view. “I just need to make enough money to get by on for a while. Then I’ll turn it off, and no one will ever need to know.” He lowered his hands to look at me with an expression of wheedling accusation. “You know I would have found your kind of work if I could.”
I turned away, hating to hear him say that. I was the example every parent in our compound told their kids about—Vaun who had found work in the city and still managed to stay unpolluted. My life was better in theory than in practice. Without the welfare checks and the fact that I wasn’t paying rent, I’d never be able to keep my head above water.
“Listen,” Tocsin said. He picked at the stray thread of his cuff instead of looking at me. “Nan is going to start to ask questions about the money this job is going to bring in. I was hoping you could—you know. Spread it around that I got work with your people. To help explain it.”
I nodded, but because he wasn’t looking, I had to force my dead tongue to move. “Of course. Don’t even ask me that.”
“Thanks.” His voice was flat. Not ungrateful; just tired.
I cleared my throat. “You going to go to the support group?”
“It’s called intunement, but yeah.”
Indoctrination, as Nan would put it. Still, I was glad. We were in a distinct position out here to know how bad a mind could go once the implant cracked it open.
I made a vague gesture at his face. “How long will all that last?”
“Should fade by morning.”
“Better hope it does,” I said, knowing he knew I would cover for him if it hadn’t. I thought of Nan’s hard eyes drilling into my head, the curtain and the smell of disinfectant; and also of the warm currents of talk and food and companionship that made this place a home. I’d seen what had happened to other kids when their families found out they strayed; either an empty eye socket or an empty place at the table. In a way our world was defined by absence as much as Far’s was by the lack thereof. Was it better to be mutilated in body, or soul?
For a while longer I sat there. Then I rose, unable to stay another minute in that close room with its prickling silence, wondering what Tocsin was hearing and feeling that I just couldn’t reach. The truth was, I was scared for him. But I had no idea how to tell him that, and in the end it was easier to say nothing at all.
“It’s not a cult.”
Sitting at our customary bench, Far turned to me with a wry smile. “You’re good with words, Vaun. But I’m not confident in your ability to reason that one out.”
“I don’t have to convince you that I’m not in a cult. The burden of proof is on you.”
“Fine.” Far passed me her cig, which glowed brown this time. I eyed it nervously, but inhaled all the same. The cinnamon tasted like vague relief. Kite’s lessons had been going well for the past couple weeks, and the latest tutoring lesson had ended early. Far had yet to ask me back to hers today. I think maybe part of her enjoyed the illicit thrill of sitting in public and talking. That irritated me a bit, but the fact was I liked talking to her.
She hadn’t brought up the vial waiting in her bedside drawer again, either. I’d checked, once, while she was in the bathroom—it was still there. It could afford to wait.
Far held up a finger. “You live on a compound. You distrust outsiders. You reject modern technology for religious reasons—”
“It’s not religion,” I said, a little too sharply. I didn’t like the way she was ticking my life off on her fingers like plot points in a hack novel.
Far looked at me, calculating. “You can believe in something religiously without any sort of God coming into it.”
I looked away, biting the inside of my cheek. “You forgot to mention the human sacrifice,” I said, and Far laughed that ugly sawing laugh of hers that I’d reluctantly come to enjoy.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t thought about it, I almost wanted to say. The doors that would open for me as soon as I let the world into my thoughts would change my life forever. But it would mean shutting another door behind me, the one which led to the only family and home I’d ever known. Birthed into the amniotic ocean of thought as she’d been, I didn’t think Far could understand that.
“Come on,” she said, slipping the cig back into her breast pocket. “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s walk to my place for once.”
“You’re assuming I want to come home with you.”
“Yes, I am.”
I rolled my eyes, a gesture that Far had never succeeded in duplicating. I ought to have told her I had somewhere to be, just to prove that I could still say no, but in the end the flesh was weak.
As we left the park, I was immediately glad to have Far at my side. Hanging trolleys whispered over our heads as they passed, sweeping over the shuffle of hundreds of feet and the soft hush of cars sliding past. The faces which passed were alight with a wash of silent emotion. The buildings were paneled with blank screens, grim and grey—only a caster could perceive what they were trying to sell.
There were others here, I knew, who had once been like me. Expats from the compound who’d kept their eyes and implants, and lost everything else. None had ever approached me. They’d been subsumed, just a few more silent ghosts wandering the city streets.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked. My words smeared that silence like an obscene stain. “The quiet.”
Far snorted, tossing her long braid over her shoulder. She made more seemingly unconscious sound than any other caster I had met. I wonder if the people around her thought her strange, or whether she could turn it on and off as easily as a switch in her head. “I could ask you the same question.”
“And I’d tell you that it does. It bothers me a lot.”
She shrugged. “It isn’t quiet for me. I can cast into the thoughts of people around me, if I want to. Except yours.”
“That sounds awful.”
“Oh, I’m sure I’m not missing out on much.” She sobered a little, turning to face me with her full interest. “The idea of walking around with cotton stuffed in my brain, numb and dumb to everyone—that sounds awful to me.”
“Maybe I like keeping some things to myself.”
“Interesting use of conditional, considering you’re the most covert person I know. You’d tell me if you were some kind of murderer, right?”
“Depends. Can you keep a secret?”
Far laughed again, and then covered her mouth when a person passing us looked at her sharply. It was rude to break the quiet, and I felt a little good about that; like I’d managed to show her something about me, without even really trying. I supposed that to venture out of the city and into that vast silence where there was nothing to cast to or to cast back at you would be a kind of death to Far. A terrible thing, to be cut off from all you’d ever known.
Then she leaned over to peck my cheek, and I stopped thinking about unreachable worlds for a while.
“I really do want to know.”
Far said this before I’d started getting dressed again, which was how I knew she might be serious. “Why is rejecting the implant so important to you and yours?” she continued, on seeing I was listening.
I propped myself up on a hand, thinking. She’d never asked before, not really, so I’d never had to explain it before. I thought about what Nan would say: that language made us human, and the implants made us something else. Having seen the city, it was hard to argue with that. But there was something more to it; something even Far might understand.
“Have you ever asked someone where they wanted to eat dinner, listened to them think aloud about what they’re in the mood for, until you can both agree on something? Or do you just think food and pick up the general sensations and cravings of the person you’re with?”
“I don’t see the difference. We end up at the restaurant either way.”
“There’s no room for mistakes. For all the little things you lose and gain between thought to word to thought again.”
Far raised her eyebrows. “Translations are imperfect by nature.”
“Art is an imperfect translation.”
“Now you’re just being pretentious.”
“Now I’m trying to make a point.”
That familiar smile touched half her lips. “If only you had an implant. Imagine how easily you could convey your ideas.”
It was a joke. It should have been easy to laugh it off. But I couldn’t just then; I was thinking about Tocsin, and my grandfather’s eye drifting like a dead log on a placid sea. When my gaze slid to Far again, her own face had gotten quiet.
“Vaun,” she said. “If there were something bad happening out there, would you tell me?”
I pressed a kiss to the back of her hand in lieu of an answer, but in the end she took it as answer enough.
When I reached the final train stop within the city limits, the car emptied as if disemboweled. It was only me and an older woman who sat at the end, veined hands trembling over her handscreen. As soon as we passed a certain stop, a switch was triggered—now the spilling color over the walls had sound attached, music that poured out of the train’s tinny speakers and startled me into alertness.
“With new implant technology, it’s never been easier to upgrade,” a cheerful baritone said as images flashed across the screen—people effortlessly finding each other across a crowded train station, a team of dancers coordinating in a complex routine, a mother casting at her baby for the first time. “The world is waiting. Cast out for it.”
The ads were clearly targeted. In the end, no one would even have to force us—it would just happen slowly, as people gave in, realized it was easier to assimilate, told themselves they’d stay vocal with their families, their kids; but how many generations would it take for even that faint conviction to flicker out?
Glancing at the old woman at the other end of the train, I realized she was staring at me hard—and that she was probably trying to cast at me. When the train reached its final stop I got off quickly, leaving her behind.
The walk back to the compound went quickly, lost in my thoughts as I was. The sound of raised voices from beyond the chain link fence didn’t strike me as particularly alarming until the gate rolled back on its aging motor and I saw the crowd.
They were gathered outside of my house.
I didn’t realize I was running until the scene wavered and dragged me closer like something from a bad dream. No elbowing through the crowd tonight; people saw me and they split apart. Even from the outskirts I could see Nan on the porch, leaning on her walking stick. She only ever came down the stairs in a crisis. Now that crisis was seething around my home like antibodies around a virus.
And then Nan’s eyes shifted to me, and nothing in her expression or posture changed; it was just that I bore the full weight of her attention like the muzzle of a gun held inches from my forehead. People were asking her questions, asking me questions, but all I could do was stand there skewered by her gaze. I knew she knew I’d kept Tocsin’s secrets, and that made me hardly any better than him.
I cleared the porch steps in two strides, my eyes shifting from Nan to the door. I just had to get to Tocsin. But before I could step forward, a hand shot out to catch my arm in a grip you’d only use on an animal, something whose pain didn’t need respecting. Behind her glasses, Nan’s eyes bored into mine.
“It’s done,” she said. I tried to tear away, but she held me fast. “We gave him the choice,” Nan said, each word another chunk bitten out of me. “He chose us.”
I was not deaf to the inference, the silent second half of her sentence: the choice that I had made, without ever knowing I had made it. I stared into Nan’s eyes, but they were flat behind the glass. I thought of Coxcomb and Cispontine and Groak, the noise and love and connection. No one stepped forward to speak for me now. The silence around me bled like a wound.
Nan let me go. I stumbled, nearly fell into someone; I didn’t see or care who. The door, the house—someone tried to stop me, but I heard Nan’s voice. “Let her say her goodbyes. She’ll be gone within the hour.”
I turned on her. Numbness spread through my chest like a branching tree of dead nerves. “I should get a choice,” I said, my voice hollow. “You give everyone a choice.”
Nan shook her head. “You already made it.”
I turned around. The house was empty as a tomb. Up the stairs. My eyes stung and swam, but I kept moving. Tocsin’s door was open, vacant. It was Nan’s room I went to; the door was unlocked, the computer parts on the workbench all filed into the separate compartments of her plastic storage container. The curtain on the other side of the room had been drawn back. I saw the bright red biohazard bin first, the color snagging my eye. The blink of the machines: pulse, breath, things that made no sense to me. Half of Tocsin’s face had a piece of medical gauze taped over it, and where once the eye had lain beneath it there was a rose of blood budding in the cotton, unfurling with each beep of the machines. Still sedated. We weren’t barbarians, tearing out the eyes of our unwilling victims without proper medical procedure. That was the worst of it, of course—that in the end, Tocsin had chosen this. As much as you could choose anything, when the alternative was to be stripped of everything you’d ever known and loved.
I sat by his bedside a long time, knowing he wouldn’t wake for hours. Even if he had, I knew what he’d probably say.
No one tried to stop me as I left. They went silent as I passed. I spread it around me like a stench. The sun was going down, and there were no lights on the long cracked road back to the train station. In the dark, all I could see was the spot of blood. I knew I’d never walk this road again. What was wrong with me wasn’t something they could pluck out.
I sat on the steps to Far’s building for a long time, waiting for her to see my message. I’d only sent the one; I couldn’t dig up the words, the urgency, the hour, the year. I didn’t know how I’d found my way here, other than following something I hadn’t known was inside of me. The city was utterly silent but for the occasional sound of footsteps. It didn’t bother me now. I never wanted to hear a spoken word again.
When the door behind me opened I jerked like someone caught nodding off. And then Far was in front of me, her arms gripping her elbows. Her eyes were confused, and a little scared, and darted between me and the heavy backpack leaning against my leg.
“Um.” I followed her gaze to my pack. For a moment I lost myself in its shape and contours, which seemed more real to me than anything else had ever been in my life. It occurred to me in a distant way that this might be asking too much; that Far might actually turn me away. “I know you don’t have any reason to—”
“Get in here,” she said with hoarse exasperation, as if there had never been any other answer at all. She led me to her door, or she must have—I didn’t feel awake or alive in the strictest sense of the word. Eventually I was naked, in her bed, and she was molded to me, chaste and still clothed. For once, I wanted to tell her everything. I wanted to open my mouth and let it pour out of me like bile dredged up from deeper than retching should go. My tongue was stone. I smelled disinfectant on every breath.
I reached for the gleam before my eyes, the single point of light: the metal knob of the bedside table that I had opened a hundred times in my mind. Far’s hand tangled with mine before I could fumble inside. She pulled my hand back and pressed it to my chest until I could feel every beat of my heart as clearly as if I held it in the palm of my hand.
“Shh,” she said, and stroked my hair. “Shh.”
And for a while there was silence deeper than I had ever known, and in Far’s arms I drank from it until I was full.