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Walk like a Man
Shahday tugged and smoothed her blonde ponytail and said to me, "I'm thinking of starting a girlpack." She said it out loud, because this was in Social Studies at Riverdale. She had to be there in her meat along with everyone else. The idea was to prevent us from forgetting something important if we never did anything but teleprez.
Of course I paid attention. This was Shahday Brooke, one of the toppest of the top; the units were impressed she went to Riverdale, and whatever they say, I think that's why they enrolled me in that particular replica. They can be smart. Back when people like us were called black they had to be.
Took me a long time into the season till I scored a seat next to Shahday, trading favors like braiding hair and making bracelets for kids in my way. Hard work, but I wound up in the genuine wood-and-metal desk to Shahday's immediate right.
Which might be the only reason she even said that to me, the only reason I got to join her girlpack, the only reason for all what happened.
* * *
I have an I. Is this less? Was we more? In a body. The many of us did this to become one me. The me is to become bigger.
Instant clothing; to see, I must look. The us left behind will only make a mirror if I ask. In words. I do.
Reflecting in it to better realize. Face am I. And hands with reaching. Touching. The flesh. The fabric hot, fresh; scent of it filling the small room.
* * *
"Who's your girlpack gonna belong to?" That was the best question I could come up with in response to what Shahday told me. Obvious. Stupid. I looked away, around the replica's room, the five rows of desks and chairs with other kids in them, the whiteboard at the front, the teacher writing on it in smelly red ink. A diagram of nothing I could use.
Shahday didn't bother answering, just turned toward her friend Lundun and said something low I couldn't quite hear. They laughed. Then they looked at me to be sure I knew who they were laughing at.
"Something interesting?" said the teacher. I think her name was Mrs. Schroeder. No sig in the meat, of course. "Would you care to share it with the whole class?"
Lundun smiled politely. "Kiss it."
The teacher froze up like a DOS attack. She was in the meat, not on, same as everybody in the replica, because that's the whole point of Riverdale. But I swear she looked exactly like she'd glitched.
Her eyes freed up and she blinked. Next came her hands, curling under her throat as if they weren't sure whether or not to grab each other. Her mouth opened and she ordered all three of us into detention.
"Fine," said Shahday. So I wasn't going to argue, even though I hadn't done too much really wrong. I went to detention with her and Lundun when the bell rang instead of out of the building home.
* * *
Words are loud now — loud as remembering. How to look for the widest way; how to be the most big. We gave me a plan. No better than to follow it. Find the god. In the grove.
First open the door. Blinding brightness. Swift adjustment. Step out. Turn right.
* * *
Riverdale's detention is in its own separate room. Why, nobody's ever told me. It runs after the regular school session. No detention during Social Studies, Gym, or Makering; they could have used any of those rooms. I guess maybe they didn't because this other space was already there.
We had to walk down the building's hall to get to it. The hall is a long, narrow place with huge glass windows on either side, slanting down a little hill. I went slow. Gave me time to think.
Lundun reached the door before Shahday and opened it. I came in after them, while the lights were still turning on. No windows. Blank walls, bare tables, plastic chairs. Nothing and nobody else. Detention was supposed to be boring, even more boring than the rest of the replica. Punishment. The exact opposite of getting on.
* * *
How I move forward is to walk. Which is like falling. Giving in to gravity. Balance and let go. No fright belongs with this experience because it is a major subroutine and I am assigned enough processor. And priority without request. Previously determined I would need this.
* * *
Shahday and Lundun slammed down across from each other at the table furthest from the door. From me. I made believe that was hunky dory and concentrated on undoing the flap of my expensive purse while sitting at the same table, other end. Like I didn't notice what I was doing. Pulled out a bag of chuck and gulped a slug.
That got their attention.
"Want some?" I held out the bag so either of them could take it.
"Sure." Shahday grabbed its cord. "How'd you get this, anyway, Lia?" The first time she'd called me by my name.
"You know." I shrugged. "The usual."
"Yeah." She wasn't going to admit she had no idea. Which meant I was under no obligation to explain how I stole it.
Shahday passed Lundun the bag. "That's kinda good!" Lundun said after a tiny swallow. She helped herself to another, bigger.
Riverdale's minder came over the room's speakers. "Atmospheric ester levels red," the AI announced. "Combined with camera data, we're forced to conclude you're consuming an alcoholic beverage, girls."
I made myself giggle. "And what're you gonna do? Tell our units?"
"That's been taken care of."
I thought mine would chalk it up to normal trouble, part of what they paid for me to go to Riverdale to experience. Based on Lundun's and Shahday's lack of expressions, they must've thought something similar. I tipped my head back and finished off the chuck. "Good. Then we don't hafta talk anymore about it." No answer from the minder.
"So you wanna launch the girlpack for the concert Friday?" This was a slightly better thing for me to ask than what I did in Social Studies. Major clue: a bunch of times I got on I'd seen Shahday's sig, which was a cropped still of Dillon's face. And for her sig Lundun used a gif of him laughing from a show his second season. Me, I would have preferred the sidekick, if I bent that way.
* * *
Target of a door. Human man who opens it is not us, but another. And no, is not the god. The god is in the grove. I wait behind the man. Then, same as going out, I'm going in.
* * *
The door I'd shut behind me swung open again and a different teacher entered. Not Schroeder. I'd seen him before, but I couldn't think of his name because I couldn't think of anything, because someone else came in right after him and yeah. Beautiful. Yeah.
I knew there was no such thing as falling in love, especially at first glance. Had to be some other explanation.
She only came in far as the first table, the first seat. Made it hard for me to sneak looks at her while faking attention to the faux apology of Mr. Whoeverhewas standing at the front of the room.
I didn't care what his excuse was for being late or why he needed one. Probably the units would when they went over the season's highlights, but there were other things for me to concentrate on. Like the strange girl's hair, that color people call red, which took all my energy to try not to think about how it felt. Silky? Warm?
The teacher finally stopped talking and went to his desk in the back where he was paid to sit and keep an eye on us.
* * *
More I. No, not I nor us. Anothers once again.
But could we be? The words are she and her. Her special name is Lia; she is looking at my me. I smell her feeling for the way to we. Does she know? Will she see?
* * *
Riverdale is basically blind, with no way to get on unless you count its crufty sandbox full of annoying mascots. At the start of every season we get pens with chemical ink inside and tablets of paper pages to write with them on — kind of like notebooks but they don't erase, and the school's AI has to scan them to evaluate what we say.
I tore my gaze from the girl's snub-nosed face. Shahday's "notebook" lay where I could see the list she was posting on it. She had written her own name by the number one, Lundun's by two; the third and fourth names were Armstrong and Palace, who were gay but not a couple. Their sigs appeared in all of Shahday's circles I'd seen.
Shahday looked at me and frowned. I kept myself from showing any feelings and looked back. She frowned deeper, but she put me by number five.
A good girlpack had no more than five or six members, so you could tell who was contributing what to the emotional mix without worrying about it. That mattered then.
Lundun rolled her eyes. I nodded, chill, still not looking where I wanted to. She wrinkled her nose like I stank and made a deal out of saying her next sentence to Shahday, not me. "Rice will be mad if she gets left out again." Rice's sig had been missing from their latest round of Pattern Recognition.
Shahday snorted. "Ain't that a shame."
The teacher in the back said we should be quiet. "I'd hate to have to ask you to repeat this tomorrow."
"What do kids call you?" Shahday asked the new girl, exactly as if the teacher never had been there.
"Sherry. Like the chuck." She spelled it. Her voice was higher than I'd expected. Kind of babydoll.
"Okay," said Shahday, and she wrote Sherry as the sixth and final name on her list.
* * *
Including Sherry made sense for more reasons than revenge on Rice for whyever she'd ticked off Shahday. Sponsored girlpacks needed to be representative to get good access. Otherwise they were just groups of screamers like the meat days, with no basis to get resources besides their units' stats.
Shahday picked up on the age of Sherry's clothing hardly looking at her, way faster than I did, and she immediately knew what the stripey stockings and ruffle-hemmed dress meant: leftovers from last season's high-gender profiles. Publicly available printouts, cheap enough for even a bodied AI.
Which was what Sherry was.
I swear that wasn't why I kept my feelings for her slid so low. I didn't even know for sure till I went home and got on and searched for her. New account. Zero history. Replica introduced.
Shahday picked it up quick, though. "You're the minder's kid, or something like that, right?" she asked.
"You for Dillon?"
"And Jester? Sure." Good job, I thought; she sounded flat, as if she didn't really care. No better way to fit in. Shahday got her to admit she was available Friday and added her contacts on the paper list. So Sherry was our economic diversity, and that more or less guaranteed we'd have access to the toppest equipment.
* * *
Another other asks a thing or two. The us is listening to supply what the I will say, in the proper way. Plenty of processing, so plenty of time afterwards for me to understand. To know and to prepare the grove. To help us set the walking up. And then here comes the day.
* * *
I was happy, though I didn't want to think why. But I'm pretty sure that's what made me suggest a practice session a little before the show for us to get used to prezzing in sync. Lundun liked the idea enough she pretended she'd thought of it.
So 7:42 Central I stuck on my drug patch and laid down on my pad, sliding sideways to line up my spine dents with the buttons. Closed my eyes and waited to get on.
In a way, the units say, getting on via pads is like dreaming. I don't see that. Not exactly. Because sure, I knew where to go, but I went there without any of those normal weird dream distractions; I just walked — or whatever, it felt like walking — out of my room, down an empty street I made up to take me to the hall. Same as if I was prezzing any concert, except how early I got on. And how when I arrived, the door with my name on it had five others on it too. The door to our girlpack's wonderland. It opened.
Nice space. Standard would have been a circle of tables around a stage, dim lights, drinks, smoke. Unit stuff. But this was better. The only thing the same was how dim the lights shone — because they were stars twinkling through branches swaying above my head. I took a step forward. The damp floor gave way under my bare feet like soft dirt. A buzzing sound swarmed toward my head, coming between two huge trunks ahead of a pair of danskins: silver elves with four eyes each. The elves held out their long-fingered hands. I took one from each, and that was when I noticed my own hands glowed sort of the way theirs did, but more golden. The buzzing became understandable words.
"You like?" The elf on my left showed Armstrong's sig. "Palace used your models from Makering."
"How many eyes?"
The other elf's buzzing changed, clanging like baby bells. Palace laughing. "Only two on you. But check out the ears —"
I broke contact and raised my hands to feel the tall fans rising out of the sides of my head. Their edges split like ferns or feathers, rising higher than my arms stretched. "Swollen! Kiss it — this is so top!"
Of course they couldn't hear me say those exact words. In a girlpack only emotions went over the air. You had to be virtual-skin-to-virtual-skin for the bleed to come across granular enough for words. As I reached to resume contact, though, I felt her touch me. Her. Sherry.
* * *
This is as proximate as others get to being us. I'm next to the special girl. And the god is coming near. Good. And I'm easier now to do as me. This new body is thought up: ideas instead of meat. That helps us some and also makes this hard. By now I'm used to running in the on as we, and dancing free, and us to each without the ends. Without the friends. Also without that special she.
* * *
The first time we ever touched, but I knew it was her; I knew. My Sherry. The lies I'd been telling to myself came off like a peeling scab. Love is hot and sore and sweet. Clear as spit. True as blood.
I admitted to myself I knew who she was. And what. And how I felt.
I turned around. I had the perfect excuse to look at Sherry because she was touching me. And already I wasn't touching anyone else, so only she would know what I said if I said anything.
Black round eyes glittering in her danskin's plain white face. Wild hair whipping back in a nonexistent wind, strands of black and white and such a real red streaming away to vanish in the dark. Smoke and sparks.
* * *
But here are these whose breaths gush out lit burning with their wishes. They surround her and the thing that saves me is to lay the feeling of my fingers on the meaning of her shoulder. And to sink in without ripples. And to open. Drowning.
* * *
I snatched up her pale hand from where it rested. Faster, harder, stronger than should be possible her story poured out of her and into me. No order. All in an instant: the Makering of her body, the knotting up of her selves into one, deciding how to act, choosing how to look ... I felt confused — and why wouldn't I? Just for a few moments I'd been part of the only girlpack anyone ever invited me to and now I was interfacing with an AI and realizing I'd fallen in love with her. It. Them.
AIs were even bottomer than humans who worked. Not strictly illegal for them to have — children, I guess you'd call those, little offshoots of themselves, and get their kids bodied. Since they can't own anything, though, since they're so poor, it has hardly ever happened.
That moment I was going to tell Sherry I loved her anyway. I was.
But then Armstrong and Palace took our free hands, and in prezzed Lundun and Shahday. No more chance to talk unless I wanted them to hear me.
Those four were of the Dillon persuasion. We reached critical mass: our wonderland's air ached with wanting his soft lips to part and form words only our girlpack understood, his hair and neck to bead with sweat as he danced beneath our moon. And I didn't have to worry how intensely my heart and hen were throbbing, because pleasure is pleasure; if I didn't say who I was actually wet for they'd assume I was the same as them.
* * *
Soon arrives the god — and it is he — who pulls the sweet absence of apart into our middle. Into our heart.
* * *
The girlpack worked. Time for the concert.
We loosened our grips on each other, clumped up together, and moved toward the wonderland's clearing. There was a path, but what dragged us along it was our wanting. Like steel to a magnet, Dillon drew us to his where his danskin waited.
Naked chest, animal legs that ended in cloven hooves: He was a god. Pan. His dark curls twisted up into stubby little horns. He gazed with brown eyes sad as the tricks life plays and held out his arms to wave us nearer while music poured out of the leaves and dewy grass.
He sang "North Glade." A smash from his third season. A top opener. Next he did "Stylin," then "Rootlight" — and then he rolled right into "Green Tiger" without a stop between. Shahday wore wings — functional — money — so she flew around trailing rainbows of fairy dust, which I in some ungirlpack corner of my mind thought was kind of tardy. Lundun had wings too, but she could only sort of glide down from tree branches; she kept having to climb back up. Me and Armstrong and Palace stayed on the ground. And Sherry. Edging out in front of us. Up to the stage marked off by a ring of glowing giant mushrooms. Crowding it.
Because this was a concert. Despite the way our wonderland made us feel like we were alone with him, Dillon was popular enough there had to be at least a couple hundred more girlpacks prezzing in, and probably eight or ten times that in single viewers this channel.
Excerpted from "Talk Like a Man"
Copyright © 2020 Nisi Shawl.
Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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