Bertie’s eyes rested unfocused as she listened.

 “You’ve got to be kidding me,” said the darker voice, in a hissed whisper. “This is not happening.”

Distressed, Bertie thought.

“It’s happening.” The second voice sounded a bit like dappled sunshine, Bertie thought. Like rays of light coming through a glade of trees, breathless and excited.

As Bertie lifted her now tepid latte, she realized she hadn’t really been breathing, either. She took a tentative sip and curled her lip in displeasure. All around her was the hum and thrum of people talking, shifting in their chairs, cups and platters rattling and clanking, the hiss of the latte machine, the door making a soft “fsst” and bell ching as customers came and went, voices asking the barista for their morning quaffs. Concentrated listening took all her effort.

She’d have to materialize if she wanted to freshen her drink. But she was down to three, maybe four solids for the whole day, and she hadn’t even left the café for work, yet. For the hundredth time she cursed angry thoughts at her units debt and reminded herself, again, she’d have to do something about that.

The dark voice interrupted her mental tirade. “No!” there was a strangled gurgle, the air began to buzz, a caustic zip crackled delicately. It seemed to Bertie the sunshine was growing brighter, the dark voice a shadow dimming when suddenly there was a sharp cry, a rasping threat, “This…is…not...how… I…go…or…you…” and the sunshine voice went out.

Can no one hear this? Bertie forced her eyes to focus on the room, mostly filled with solids, though a few chairs seemed slightly hazed over with faint, very faint, fog. Her own cup had the same slight haze to it.

Yes, there. Bertie saw a chair seem to tremble, then pitch back and hit the floor. Everyone near that table started up, except Bertie. An older person, probably lived nearby (she looked completely solid, so she must have walked), gasped, “She’s dead!”

There, on the floor, a small form began to develop, thin arms and legs splayed out from under a well-worn woolen peplos, its natural gray almost blending in with the dirty tile floor. Her chiton was just as gray, and threadbare. Almost bald, what few strands of hair still clung to her perfectly round head caused everyone to draw back in fearful dismay. A moongirl.

Bertie held still and began to sniff the air. Rich, curling wafts of pungent umber rose from the latte machines, the crinkling smell of tiny bunt bodies being whirred to powder and puffs, as baristas prepared fresh quaffs. Sharp metallic odors, redolent with spice, as people solidified around the moongirl, and there, ever so faintly, the receding trace of flesh tartar, a wisp already dissipating…

Bertie swiveled her ears to the door, just in time to hear the soft ‘fsst’ and gentle chime. Good, she thought to herself. In an instant, she was also at the door, then through, having locked her nose on the smell of death.

And this was why Bertie was in debt.

When she wasn’t pursuing murder suspects, she worked as a stenog for the Embodied Estates company, taking dictation for the elderly. Being solid was spendy! Retired folks didn’t have the means, and soon enough, they’d be too old to materialize; well, legally, anyway.

Environmentalists were constantly lobbying for newer and stiffer taxes on the “luxury” item of Materializers, and the companies that made them. Which was a crock, really, since environmentalists were the ones that got the trend started in the first place. They’d kept complaining about all the used noises and smells piling up everywhere, Mount Cacophony, an ugly, jagged volcano constantly spewing detritus, Effluvium Swamp oozing pestilence, destroying natural habitats for the resources they needed, not to mention Pigment Stye’s festering eyesores that sickened every living thing.

Materializers made it possible for people to live on other resources when solid. Eating, drinking, breathing had all been very exotic and exciting new experiences; but touching. No words in erdi for that kind of intoxicating euphoria. Touching required full embodiment, a truly expensive luxury, but so addicting to many that soon Materializer Cards came out with complex point systems, increasing debt tiers, and bonus rewards for friend recommendations.

Unfortunately, becoming solid also required a great deal of energy. Back when Materializers first came out, energy was everywhere, literally lying in countless pools all over the planet and nearby moons, it hung in thick strands, its ends fluttering with every vortex, it draped, bunched, and piled in virtually every corner. Youth ate it, just for the rush, oldsters bathed in it, hoping to regain their pep.

But, Materializers, even the newer models, sucked up energy like there was no tomorrow. Bertie shivered. That’s exactly what the environmentalists threatened. Tomorrow is on the line!

But you only live once, Bertie told herself, as she once again eyed her units debt, looking over the depressing column in her mind. Mentally shaking her head, she reminded herself, for the hundredth time, the steep cost had still been worth it. Images of silky, prickly, gelatinous, quaggy, ticklish, echinated ecstasy coiled up around her, so enthralling she almost lost connection with the flesh stench. Snapping back to, Bertie chided herself. Pay attention! Moongirl. Murder. Dark voice. Pursue. Ah, there it was, the thews stench, fading but still detectable. She locked back on it, and thought about the frail, dead moonperson.

At first, people had tried erdaforming the nearest moon. It seemed to work. But resources were still scarce. Chromas, aromas and tones were hard to come by, only the nearby stars shedding their luminescence seemed to keep those people going. Their chronic need radiated a nearly translucent, creeping pathosis, quietly syphoning health from all those around them. Mostly. These days, moonpersons were quarantined to the moon, unless they could find an erdsponsor.

Bertie noticed she was being towed by the tartar tang into what looked like one of the city’s several transit terminals. Not good. Not good at all. Every possible odor and essence galed around her, zephyrs and pheromones, flurries and perfumes. Her nose was smart, but not that smart. Had the dark voiced person sensed her nearness? Bertie went from nose to ears to eyes to nose to ears to…Hopeless. It was hopeless. She’d lost the trail.

Bertie reviewed her options. She could find her way back to the café and see if there were any witnesses left who could tell her what happened next. She could—just barely—make it to work and hope several elders came in needing a document written (that would go a long way in dealing with her units debt).

Thankfully, the newest environmental law requiring oldsters, with their extravagant medical needs, to remain chinook so as to protect resources for the young and fit meant her job was well-protected, even with her sometimes erratic work habits. Government work is the best, she agreed to herself.


Or, I could head over to the social services depot and see if there are any new requests for an erdsponsor! It was, after all, public domain, anyone could ask for it, though the SSD never seemed to find the wherewithal to get them posted. Few people wanted moon immigrants here, making erdsponsors something of a cross between savior complex and rebel. Well, they liked to fashion themselves as revolutionaries, anyway. Fsst. Bertie thought the derogatory sound to herself, of a door snicking shut. Keep them out! She added the little bell chime for good measure. Fsst! Ding! How often had she heard that rant.

“No, I’m sorry,” said the tired, apathetic voice, heavy with boredom. “I don’t know where the list is, I only answer frequently asked questions. Hardly anybody asks for that.” Bertie was starting to lose heart. Why care about a dead moonie, for crying out loud? Bertie smiled at her own joke. Few people materialized just to cry out loud, except for reckless adventure seekers.

“Okay, fine,” Bertie said. “What do people ‘frequently ask’ about?”

“Well,” the voice of apathy replied, “People do ask about moonpersons trying to sneak through customs. I’ve got that list right here.” Bertie focused her eyes and saw a paper waft out of a drawer and onto the counter. Lines of print started moving up the page, name after name, who could tell whether they were old or young? And there were hundreds, wait, thousands, of names, line after line. Bertie felt herself grow disoriented, dizzy, her mind couldn’t keep up.

“Stop!” Bertie’s haze quivered. “Just. Okay, never mind.” Without waiting for an answer, she went back to the transit terminal, looking for a hushbooth. These smarter terminals were like a city-within-a-city, with hushbooth inns, aroma centers, shopping malls, everything! She found a 15-minute booth, mentally (if somewhat reluctantly) let slip a few subunits, and gratefully sank into its insulated quiet.

Now I have time to think, she thought.

The dark voice had sounded surprised when the dappled sunshine spoke. Was it about timing? The dark voice was being forced in some way. Whoever it was, was unprepared to do—or maybe “be”?—whatever the dappled voice had in mind. So much so, death was the only alternative? What could be so shocking, so defining, so altering, that murder was the only way of escape?

Unless it was an accident. Bertie like that thought better. It had sounded like a struggle, a desperate contest over “it” happening. What would a moonie want that an erd didn’t?

A merging!

Bertie shuddered.

An illegal use of Materializers began in the early stages of its development, when people could artificially merge their essences together, and become one essence, for a brief time. A very ancient ritual, it was meant only for those who intended to bring forth new people (and there were a lot fewer of those, anymore, Bertie thought to herself). Custom required people to form a covenant, observe certain rites together, and allow their essences to slowly blend, until they were a harmony of iridescence. Out of their luminosity came a new essence, a fragile, tender aura, in need of gentle melody, fragrant vapor.

The process of forced merging brought a riotous cascade of experiences. Mergs found it wild and zesty. But on occasion, a merg would target an unsuspecting partner, who was rightfully outraged by the violation.

Is that what happened?

But why kill over that?

And then it hit her, palpably, almost as though struck with force. Surprising even herself, Bertie burst out of the hushbooth, briefly paused at the police port, then led the way back to the café.

Though the door said “closed,” Bertie and the police detective who had come with her entered the now emptied latte room and wafted over to the coroner and her crime scene assistants. Solid, she was gently scraping a feathery brume from the moongirl’s skin, and easing it into an evidence bag.

“We have the perp,” she said, in a firm, grim voice, sensing Bertie and the investigator behind her. “They’ll be solid, somewhere, probably trying to blend in with a crowd, but they’ll have burns on most of their skin. Not bad burns, maybe all healed up in a few cycles, so you need to find them now.”

The coroner turned to dematerialize the moongirl, suction her essence into another evidence bag, then tuck the baggies and her equipment into a transit box. “I’d say probably a dark navy red exterior? Maybe six lengths or so, look for someone wearing a bentbody chiton, probably natural hue, that’s from the sample I just got. I’m sure they’ll use their peplos to hide in. Focus your vision!”

And focus your nose, Bertie thought. She’d explained to the police about both the dark voice’s words, and their vile fetor. Thankfully, the police had already recently investigated a couple of similar crimes, but had withheld key factors from the news agencies. No sense in creating unwonted panic when they still weren’t even sure what they were dealing with. At least, that is to say, until now.

“Thanks,” the detective said, who had materialized as they were talking. She retied the strophion around her own peplos, to create a deeper fold, and to hoist up her hems for a swifter pace. Much more hesitantly, Bertie also solidified. (That left two, maybe three for the whole rest of the day, she thought dourly).

Both the coroner and the detective inadvertently gasped at Bertie’s glistening gray skin and simple, yet perfectly pleated woolen garments. Though she had a full head of hair curling around her consummately round face, there was no mistaking her origins. “I’m healthy and clean,” she said, quietly. But, it was her very nature that had solved the case.

In a rare and unusual pairing, her parents had merged moon and erda together, against all wise counsel. They were in love. They were young. They were sure old prejudices needed to die, and moonpersons needed the empathy and aid of erda. But, even after finally finding someone who would say the ancient words over them, and someone else who would provide sanctuary for their slow harmonies to emerge, even after a steady diet of serenity, tranquility, and mistrals of love, it had taken far, far longer than even they had imagined to bring forth the fragile new aura of Bertie.

Nevertheless, once emerged, Bertie had become proof it could be done. And, in the merging, her moonmother had become healthy and strong, a joyful aftereffect. Unexpectedly, her parents discovered another aftereffect that had dampened the enthusiasm of other likeminded erds. They could only embody as one person, now. Unsurprisingly, moongirls were not nearly as reluctant to try this new venture as erds were, and the flurry of erda emigration applications seeking sponsors grew to mammoth proportions.

The coroner was the first to recover. “And good for you,” she said. “I’ve met others like you, not many, but the trend is slowly gaining traction.”

“I can see how you put it all together,” the detective said, with a tentative smile. “I think you’re right. This is a botched moonie/erd force-merge, and we’re going to see more. These new Materializers are way stronger than the older models. We’ve had a couple of other burned victims over at the poport, but nothing as serious as today.”

Bertie nodded. “I guess the erd she picked wasn’t having it. Must’ve short-circuited the source on the moongirl’s end, jolting her solid. I remember my mother telling me moonpersons can’t take erda’s air or gravity without 30 lengths’ of conditioning, at least. Crushed her dead.”

All three had walked through the door and started towards the downtown crime lab. “I’ll have all this processed,” the coroner said, “And get the results back as soon as I can.” She stepped onto a lift and whisked off, leaving the detective and Bertie to say their goodbyes.

“I guess I better head for work, “Bertie said, a bit ruefully.

“Yeah,” replied the detective. “Thanks for reporting in, and I’ll let you know when we find the vic-perp.”

As Bertie looked for a lift headed towards Embodied Estates, she thought about what must have driven the moongirl to such criminal lengths. Had she even considered what that would have been like, force-merged forever with someone? Had she been that desperate? The more Bertie reflected, the more she realized she wanted to do something. But what? She was just one person among countless others, she hardly made any units, she had no political influence, no celebrity fame, no connections. What kind of help could just plain folks like her offer? Would it even count for anything?

She stepped up onto the B-North lift, whisked towards work, and decided something is always more than nothing. It wouldn’t be much, she didn’t have much. But it would be something.

The next morning, Bertie wafted into her favorite café, ordered a latte, then mentally sent a latte’s worth of subunits to the Moonpersons Advocacy Fund. A tiny amount, but, she reminded herself, something is more than nothing.

Then, bracing herself for the gasps and wary looks, she solidified and struck up a conversation with the people waiting with her for their quaffs. The more she engaged people, the more they might come to accept moonpersons on erda. A conversation in her material body might not be much. But it was more than nothing. She smiled to herself, hoping her own small step would encourage others like her to do the same.

January 14, 2020 03:41

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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