Casja Fawnell watched the automatons spin upon the stage and laughed. Her mirth mixing with the peculiar, age-distorted waltz music seeping from the vast auditorium’s ceiling-shrouded speakers. Rehdon looked down from the stage to the woman in the front row with mellow curiosity.
“What’s so funny, Songbird?”
“You. I don’t know how you come up with this stuff. Its very whimsical.”
He smiled genially and turned a diminutive dial on his dated silver wristwatch, whereafter the mechanical puppets ceased their outlandish gesticulations.
“I’m glad you think so. Took me ages to synchronize their movements. This is the first you’ve smiled since that man left.”
“What do you make of him?”
“I liked him. He seemed kind.” The woman was silent a moment and lowered her head. “It’s just a lot to process.”
“Are you sure you want to go through with it? If you talk to the press, you’ll be under a lot of attention. It’ll be quite stressful. The activist groups that have taken up Kleiner as a martyr will come after you. The souther partisans will declare you an ally of the KSRU, and thus, an enemy of their race; a expression of aecerite chauvinism. Every indelicacy of your past will be dredged and used against you.”
“I know. But Vancing is right. The man that attacked me is still out there. I can’t just sit idly by. I don’t want him to hurt anyone else. I have to do something. Right now, this is all I can do. Besides, I’m a boring person, its difficult to lie about boring people.”
“You don’t bore me. Does that mean I’m boring too?”
“No, it means you’re strange.”
“You’ve really made up your mind?”
“I thought you were trying to cheer me up?”
“So sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. Its none of my business.”
“Of course it is. I’m glad I have someone to talk to about it. My friends wouldn’t understand. Just like with my singing.”
Rehdon tilted his head, his smile fading, buoyant expression waxing contemplative.
“They didn’t understand the impetus of your art because they’re not artists. Though they try to be. But no matter how they posture, the clothes do not fit. They don’t have the same clarity of purpose. They do what they do because they can, and because they can do it together. Company makes life bearable to those who haven’t grasped a dream. Because of that vain grasping, they don’t know what they want to achieve with their music. Individually, or collectively. They have no vision. Because they have no aspirations beyond weathering the moment.” He rose from the ornate armchair positioned at the center of the stage and strode past the articulated manikins, frozen mid-dance, his bandaged hand gingerly caressing them as he went. “They’re merely coping. Hiding in their melodies. But you don’t hide. You aren’t afraid to articulate any aspect of yourself in your music. Honestly and completely. That is why you are a true artist.” He paused and looked down at the woman. She was smiling with pride, a tinge of red in her cheeks.
“I appreciate you saying so.”
He leapt from the stage and stood before the woman. She looked up nervously.
“Say, what’s the time?”
The man glanced at the antiquated timepiece on his left wrist.
“Its getting late.”
“I hope I’m not keeping you from anything.”
“Oh no. Not at all. Its just that Sodabrucke is holding a rally tonight.”
“At Fabrdyn Stadium. At 7:00.”
“Ah, you remembered. Yes. I didn’t want to miss it.”
“Me neither. The market district should be pretty quite.”
“Care to take a turn on the town with me?”
The woman’s eyes went momentarily wide.
“I’d be delighted.”
“Wonderful. I know of a splendid automat. Do you like seafood?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know much about seafood.”
“I remember you telling me as much. Even if you don’t, its worth going for the view alone. If we hurry we can watch the sun set.”
He began striding for the exit, picking up a hooded coat and two thin gloves from the hanger in the lobby. In a daze of excitement, the woman followed. Outside, Rehdon hailed a cabriolet and together the two returned to the market district from which they had earlier departed. When they arrived, a string of CAVs sped toward the west, where, beyond a series of jumbled tenements and abandoned communication towers, lay Fabrdyn Stadium, its distinctive bluish light peaking up from a sea of vertical constructs like brands of crystal flame.
“I’ve a feeling its going to rain.”
Rehdon pulled the hood up over his head, gloves crinkling against the plush synthetic mesh of the cowl, and gestured to a blanched, dimly lit building on the second layer of the town, set beside the thrumming CAV-way on-ramp that arched over the residential zone like the vertebrae of a great metal beast.
“That’s it, up there.”
Fawnell followed his gaze high above the surrounding buildings with wonder.
“I didn’t know there were any restaurants in the mid-tier.”
“It used to be a charging station, back before Kryos’ starglaive reactors rendered them superfluous. So someone turned it into a food court for those taking the line to and from the district.”
The pair trekked across the lightly trafficked street and took a mechanized lift to the CAV-way pedestrian entrance and waited until the blue light that indicated no forthcoming traffic glowed. They passed across the wide, raised highway and entered the restaurant. Inside, the smell of processed food and industrial solvents hung thick in the air, alongside orange paper lanterns that dangled from the ceiling like strange airborne jellyfish. The muted hissing of an old recording emanated from the walls, a woman singing in a foreign tongue, her tones dulcet and melancholic.
“May we take the balcony?” Rehdon inquired to a box on the wall.
The box hummed and replied. “All tables, presently vacant. Seat yourselves wherever you like.”
Rehdon turned to the large industrial food crafter set behind a large, white counter to the left.
“What shall it be? My treat.”
“Oh, you don’t have to.”
“Its fine. Really. What would you like?”
“I don’t know, you said you knew this place well.”
“Surprise me. Anything that doesn’t taste like cardboard will do.”
Rehdon smiled and gestured to the balcony, which afforded a dizzying view of both the recumbent, luminous city below and the teeming CAV-way lanes adjacent. She took a seat on the balcony and watched the sun set below the gleaming spires and drifting aerostats until she heard footsteps and a clatter of plates. She looked down to behold a large, covered platter before her.
“What is it?”
She slowly removed the lid from the tray and raised her brows as a peculiar aroma wafted to her nostrils. A large fish lay before her, turquoise and possessed of high, thin spinal fins.
“What a peculiar-looking fish.”
Rehdon took a seat opposite the woman, the sun at his back, masking his face.
“Its a spindlefish.”
“Never heard of it.” She removed the flexile knife and fork from the package affixed to the top of the platter and cut a small slice of craniate and brought it gingerly to her mouth, chewed, swallowed and brightened. “Oh. Delicious.” She cut off another piece of fish and looked up at her companion contemplatively. “Its ironic. When I was little, I wanted to be a marine biologist. More than anything.”
“I was fascinated by what might be down there. In the ocean. So many creatures have gone unnoticed for most of human history. Like the giant squid. I was enchanted to learn we had been ignorant of something so big, lurking below us, for so long. What else might be down there we don’t know about?”
“They kill whales. Do you know this?”
“I remember reading something about it.”
He removed the platter from his plate and unsheathed his plastiware. “When I was young, I wanted to be a journalist. Trotting around the globe. Rooting out corruption. Bringing the truth to light. I found it all very romantic. So, by degrees, I dedicated myself to honesty in all circumstances. I can’t recall what started it. You know what I discovered?”
“No one appreciated it. Not a soul. When I told one of my teachers a classmate was cheating on his math quiz, I was beaten on the playground. My math teacher said, ‘What did you expect?’ Wasn’t telling the truth what I was supposed to do? Shouldn’t one want to know the true contours of the world? I was told yes, but also, ‘There is a time and a place for all things, and this is neither the time, nor the place,’ and, ‘You need to learn some tact, young man,’ and, ‘Sometimes its ok to keep things to yourself,’ and ‘You shouldn’t have said that, young man.’ The more often I told the truth, the harder my life became. I overheard my mother telling my father there was something wrong with me. He said she was probably right. I lay awake at night for weeks thinking the same question after that. Was there something wrong with me? It couldn’t be that there was something wrong with everyone else, surely not. Years later, I made a friend in highschool, a beautiful, vivacious young artist. It wasn’t long before I fell in love, but it took two years for me to muster the courage to do anything about it. We moved in together and shortly thereafter I began to notice it. Her lies. Her inability to confront the unvarnished and inconvenient realities. As was predictable to me, even then, she, well, the details don’t matter now. Its enough to say she deceived me. When I broached the subject, she was furious with me for relating the character of her deception, as if it were somehow my fault. As if the real betrayal lay in the mere summary of the event.”
Fawnell leaned over the table, eyes wide with curiosity, lips curled by pity. “Then what did you do?”
He stuck his knife in the eye of the fish on the plate before him and twisted the orb free. “I arranged matters so her insides matched her outsides.” He held the knife over the fish until the eye slide off the end, falling, inverted, back into its socket.
Fawnell straightened, her mouth parting slightly. “What?”
“After that, I thought, why should I be honest with inherently dishonest people? If its lies they want, I should give them just that. And other things besides.”
“Her… outsides… What are you saying?”
He looked to his watch before answering deliberately. “It doesn’t make any difference now.”
“What did you do?”
“You have the same look she did, all those years ago. Oh, would you look at the time.” He turned his wrist toward the woman, the clock on it displaying 6:50. “Its nearly seven. Sodabrucke’s rally is going to start soon.”
“I have to go.”
“Of course you do.”
Rehdon smiled broadly as Fawnell rose from the table and stood awkwardly and began heading toward the exit. Her movements increasingly clumsy. The man watched her leave, his visage tinged with subtle anticipation, once more scanning his démodé and superannuated timepiece. Suddenly there came the blare of a CAV-way emergency klaxon. Rehdon drew up his hood and left off into the screaming pitch of night.