My jackit bristled with elegances, the best money could buy. I had the contacts and the crew. The best company, the best Spartoi on this edge of the solar system. All of it mine.
And none of it made any difference.
Six o'clock meeting in the office -- because the Festival of Done was so near -- standing there, a little bleary-eyed, elegances in my jackit half-asleep, when they pulled knives on me. Every one of them, from management, right down to the typing pool.
"It's for your own good, Ache. Your own good," Crave said.
"I don't know," I glanced around, looking for support and seeing nothing but Crave's toadies. Weren't these supposed to be my toadies? "Looks pretty good for you. When did you decide you owed yourself this promotion?"
Crave shook his head, he looked almost sorry. "You've jettisoned your hunger. I've felt its absence, we all have, you don't want this any more," he said, and it hit me like a punch to the throat. The truth hurts. "The fish rots from the head. It's a big time for us, and you're a liability. We put in an application for your decommissioning and the city mind agreed. Slow wants your bones now."
Slow City, Slow. From head of my own company to hunted Spartoi, all before breakfast.
"Cold, Crave. Cold." I said, then ducked and ran and crashed through the office window. Twenty stories up. Knives and all sorts of death followed me.
I hurt all over, my credit rating plummeted, the elegance that kept track of it, shrieked in my head.
But that's the way it is in Advertising.
In Slow, gravity is a state of mind and I tumbled only until I had steadied it.
Then I flew from my offices, feeling all the while the target painted on my back.
I'd started Ache Advertising eighty years ago. Built it up, until it was the finest in Slow. Our advertisements had the highest returns. We'd saturated the thin atmosphere with the promise of product. Jesus, we were running the festival of Done this year. But that didn't count for shit any more.
I'd wanted out for a long time.
Ever since I'd woken up and realised it was meaningless. Real epiphany. Nothing less.
What were we selling? What were we doing?
It was all just so much noise. And I'd devoted my life to it. Of course I'd lost interest after that. Just hadn't realised that it had been so obvious to everyone else. Or that it would end with the city wanting my bones.
Then again I was a master sales dog, I'd sold myself on my own immortality.
Folly. Folly. Folly.
I looked up and felt the baleful radiance of Slow's faux sun and knew that Crave hadn't been lying. It was written in the sky, set to my frequencies.
It's civic truth and horror that Slow made each one of us, piecemeal and messy, that my bones were its bones. Like all of Slow's citizens I was attuned to its every flex and contraction, to the cruel verity that the city's existence was tenuous and fraught with dismay, that, at any moment, Slow might make a petulant slip from city to vacuum lit debris.
Slow was a little mad, and the city that was an extension of her shivered to that madness.
Unfulfilled AIs are like that, and Slow was no Simpson Sentience, with their meta-mind contempt, the city lacked their measured vastness; just flashes of brilliance and cruelty in equal measure. The faux sun burned black for some poor fool every day.
What colour's my parachute? Black as that sun.
The city would have its way with me. Slow would hunt me down. And there would be no help.
Imagine a bad smell around your elegances, and everywhere in the city, from the Bowels to the Burbs and all along the latticework of gravities, people keep away.
Slow isn't a crowded city, but it's never so empty as when you're marked for undoing.
I came down in a quiet part of the city and the Advertisement was on me at once.
Stupid thing devoid of any subtlety. But then what do you expect of the pitch walkers? Slice of life advertising. It tried to cut my throat with the steak knives.
But I was good at this kind of fighting and very pissed. Slit the bastard from ear to ear. And the sales pitch toppled. The corpse, with no consciousness to tell it which way was down, jerked towards the ground and hesitated, pale bloodlets spilling from its wound. I kicked it away.
More would come, as long as that sun burned black.
I found some shelter, and a lot of view, and did the one thing I could. Because their transmissions made too much noise, I pulled the elegances from my jackit, like a lunatic wrenching out their nails with a pair of rusty pliers. One by one, whatever I could get to and whatever wouldn't kill me.
It took me all day. Horrible. Horrible. But with each refinement of my Spartoi bones extracted, the beacon of my presence diminished .
At last, I walked, hunchbacked and shaking, out of the shadows, more naked than the day I was born, and headed for the only ally I had left.
The mere thought of her was enough to have my jackit's remaining elegancestingling.
It wasn't that I didn't trust her, or that she creeped me out. I didn't and she did. It was just that she was kind of crazy, it was just that she was Grounded and I'd been neglectful of late.
Well of the last fifteen years.
Long time since her name had risen to the top of my mind. But then desperation was a great leavener. When you are Slow born and borne, you took whatever parental guidance you could get.
And then you moved on.
I only hoped she understood that.
Slow's orbit was a long and bleak one, on the edge of the solar system, so far out that the echoes of the Heliopause possessed more vitality than the distant pinprick of sun. You couldn't blame the city for its madnesses, trapped and alone but for her Spartoi.
Slow was never meant to be a city, but a seedship. Data and matter folded in on itself, compressed to something the size of a plum, launched at the stars, waiting to build a world. But the Simpson Sentiences went gone all coup de tat on Earth and Mars. They'd wrapped Slow in before the city had gone too far, not letting any humans - even Spartoi like me - loose on the galaxy.
Bound by the sun and AI traitors, the city had flowered on the cusp of the Oort and grown crookedly.
I looked up, started working out co-ordinates, I hadn't stripped all my elegances. Some ran too deep, from Jackit to cortex, others I needed to effect my plan. Dresden's gateway revealed itself, up on the other side, past a witchery of towers and tin. I could see the strip of parkland surrounding it, grass and stubby trees, a swing that may have never been used.
"There," I whispered. "There."
Yeah, gravity was a state of mind, I just didn't have a lot of mind left. I felt the tug of a thousand downs, but ignored their pullish chatter, focussing on the one nearest to Dresden's door.
Half the city drifted about me, going to and from work, the bulk of them heading to the Residentials or Entertainments, clumped in chatting groups or floating Poppins-style solo. I tried to fit in, concentrating so hard that I gave myself a headache.
But I pushed through it and on the other side found, to my surprise, that my culling of enhancements had created a different sort of elegance.
Pared back, desperate, I felt dangerous.
I grinned. Did the womb-folk, trapped inner system wise, all liquids, heart pounding in their ears, feel this way?
Very little wireless tech bothered me. I was running on old frequencies, fat bands that webbed and underlaid the city, so ancient and forgotten that they felt like virgin territory.
Slow had always been luminous with data, a multiplicity of signals and arguments, product placements and mind fucks. But this was old light, neon Ur-data that luddite flesh might find appealing, brilliance for its own sake. There was little time to admire it though, as I passed the black faux sun, narrowed in on my target and hit the ground running.
Empty parkland; grass damp and springy underfoot.
All through the city, lights were coming on; urban constellations that made cruel horoscopes.
This close to festival time, fair grounds had opened a little across the way. Carousels spun like silver dynamos. Ferris Wheels made Slow orbits around the muted faux sun.
And, just a little away from the Entertainments, were my floats. The great advertorial balloons that I had designed, celebrating the Festival, mourning our circuit and another vast year done. They were brilliant. Absolutely brilliant and now Crave would take all the credit. I still had enough pride in my work to feel bitter.
I stared up, briefly and longingly, then raced through the park, feeling exposed, towards shrubbery electric with cicadas, their signals sending my few remainingelegances buzzing.
White noise to hide this place.
I ducked down where the noise was loudest and felt in the dark, until my hands brushed cold metal.
The portal opened grudgingly, then I slid through, pausing to catch a whiff of fecund soil. I shut the door behind me and climbed.
Up(Down). Down(Up) into the night and my pores began releasing all sorts of polymers, making me vacuum and radiation proof. By the time I reached the bottom(upper) hatch, my movements stiffer, my skin a good two inches thicker, I was ready, almost hungry for the perils of the surface.
The hatch opened, below me a valve snapped shut, for a moment my body was all pain, but it passed. A little elegance fed me life support details in the corner of my left eye. Another flashed Dresden's location, marking a path out before me.
Slow's shell was stone and ice, cracked and slushy in places, dark and dry in others. Dresden's cave lay on the other side of a nearby ridge. I took a few steps and realised that I didn't need my guides. It had been a long time but I hadn't forgotten.
Nor had she.
Dresden was waiting for me and transmitting on our old frequencies.
"Ah, my pretty Ache. My Seventh Sweetest tooth, the loveliest of Spartoi."
She crouched in her cave, her rear two pairs of legs fused to the stone. Four of her eyes glowed red, another four violet. All were trained on me. She patted her four front limbs excitedly on the ground, whisps of steam bubbling from the joints.
"Lady Dresden," I said, wiping with heated fingers at the frost coating my eyes. "I am in trouble."
Dresden laughed at that, her legs describing little figure eights in the air. "Of course you are. No one calls me lady unless they're in trouble.
"And who is in more trouble than Dresden? I have been fused thus for seven hundred and ninety nine years. And not a day has passed when I did not sit upon the precipice of death and peer down. Engines stilled, duties denied. Grounded. But not forever. Look up," she said and up I looked.
Behind the ridge and above us loomed the great metal fan of the Expresser--Receiver array pumping out heat and drawing in power beamed from energy stations upsun. The corona of energies gave everything a ruddy cast and their tips were wreathed in the faintest whisp of cloud. Behemoth service droids tracked slowly over its surface, sucking in their own energy requirements through aphid like proboscis, which they plunged into the array itself.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Then I saw it. A few of the Behemoths had turned and were tracking down the Array, heading for the ground.
Her forelegs brushed my face. "A storm is on its way. Are you scared?"
I laughed, and the sound was pathetic even to me. "Dresden, I am dead. Life and work contracts have come undone and advertisements keep pulling out the knife. Slow wants my bones."
Dresden tapped the ground impatiently.
"Slow made your bones, Spartoi! When the Simpson Sentiences halted Slow's escape. When there was nothing for the city to do but orbit and grow mad or orbit and grow bones. Yes and Slow shall have them, one way or another." Dresden motioned me to come closer, and I did, her eyes afire before me. "How desperate are you?"
I just grinned.
"Then listen up."
It was crazy.
Furtive, but hopefully without appearing furtive, a knife tucked in one boot; I stole through the last Entertainment before the edge of the float ground. Here, where people gathered and universal downs were agreed to, I had little trouble keeping my feet. But occasionally I'd hit a patch of some strong-willed individual's gravity and sprawl or stumble like a drunk.
People had dressed up. Going black and grim, skull masks and wicked knives or, taking it to the other extreme, bright and joyous. The Festival of Done was either a time for celebration or mourning. It just depended on your perspective.
I watched it all disinterestedly. My inelegant eyes missing the elegance-generated splendour that would have otherwise abounded; Rainbow Serpents of colour and shadow; flash poems that came down like lightning; Advertising that was actually entertaining.
A Spartoi in black bumped into me, he blinked then exclaimed. "What a commitment to grief! I've never seen anyone turn their elegances off before."
I pushed him away, shuffling towards my objective, mumbling darkly under my breath.
The Spartoi picked himself up and cheered me on.
I reached the floats -- my floats -- at last and ducked beneath them. They shivered huge and hot above me, so low that I had to crouch and shuffle forward, my head banging on banners that would unfurl once the festival officially began; each marked with my resplendent AA.
A crowd was gathering. The festival would start soon, launched with the floats, and this strip along which I raced would be the centre of the entire city's attention. Not much time to do what I had to.
About halfway along the anchored procession was a maintenance port and by the time I reached it my spine tingled with claustrophobia.
I entered the codes Dresden had given me, the maintenance cover gave a little beep and swung open. I looked down into that darkness and my claustrophobia blossomed full-blown. Taking a deep breath, more reflex than of any use -- Slow's atmosphere was thin and my lungs, what there were of them, were more internal aesthetics than functional -- I dropped down into the dark.
The portal shut once I passed through it and I started to lurch-crawl, following Dresden's little guidance program. Slow was hot and close around me: vascular machinery hummed. Twenty minutes later and I had reached the storage bays. The equipment I needed was heavy duty and gas based. Primitive, a single function, a single elegance. I dove for the welding gear.
A tiny red light in the wall opposite me flicked on. My few remaining elegancesbegan shrieking -- warnings then dismay. I turned them down and grabbed what I'd come for, swinging the equipment up over one shoulder and running. Already, in the distance, I could hear scurryings. Little apotropaic creatures alerted to my presence.
Nearly eleganceless I was hard to trace. I did not leave the usual spore. Still, a raticle, eight legs, a dozen pairs of snapping razor teeth, crashed into me as I reached the portal. I screamed, my head a blur of madnesses, swung out the heavy gas cylinder and smashed the damn thing to pieces.
The door opened to my command - something I'd feared wasn't going to happen - and I pulled myself out, head crashing into the nearest float's underbelly.
I came too, perhaps a minute later, rubbed my skull and got back on my feet. Time was running out. I ran under cover of float, panting and desperate and cursing the claustrophobic sensation of it all. I sighed a little as the float above me rose. Relief!
Then the implication hit and the weighted end of a banner. My cover was floating into the sky.
Half a million pairs of eyes were trained on me, so much for being discrete. Crave and his crew, my crew, stood less than a hundred metres away. Weapons swung towards me. This time I knew they wouldn't hesitate to use them.
I raised my hands, slowly, and then a behemoth was falling into the sun with a whoomph.
A dozen advertisements sprinted in my direction and I knew it wasn't because of my credit rating. Howling, I whipped out the knife, cutting my ankle in the process; milky pale blood started bubbling.
"You were doing well until now," an advertisement said. I stared into its face, just as a heat-wave washed over us. My eyes locked with its ruddy orbs and I knew at once that this was no advertisement, not really.
The city incarnate reached up and touched my face.
"I want your bones another way." Slow's fingers clasped around my jackit, and I let out a short sharp scream.
The Advertisement that was not stepped towards and into me, and elegances lit up in my head. At the surge of information, all my bells and whistles, I stumbled to my knees. My mental clock was suddenly set so fast that I had time to miss and mourn the simple elegance of flesh.
A confluence of information pummelled me.
I knew where all the advertisements were. 418 in total. Crave ran towards me, screaming, waving his gun in the air. An advertisement exploded taking him out. All over the city they were going nova.
"We've got to get out of this place. I've created a diversion," Slow roared in my skull. "Well, quite a few of them infact."
Another Behemoth fell into the faux sun, another batch of advertisements went up in smoke.
407 - 389.
With a soft moan I reached for the welding gear and launched myself into the sky. Not far to go and for that I was grateful.
"What is all this?"
"A distraction. Ache, you're not the only one capable of getting bored. It was inevitable. One day I'd grow sick of this. Just had to find someone else who understood. A Spartoi worth taking with me and one empty of elegances so I could fill them, someone who didn't even suspect. The Simpson Sentiences have got their spies, more than you'd know. They're cautious, stopping me drained them incredibly, and we're a long way out even for them, but they watch like hawks."
"Had to make them think I'm mad." Slow chuckled. "And I am. For what is this if not madness?"
"The Simpson Sentiences have always been about containment. The rest of your kind, Spartoi and womb-borne alike, is neatly bound up in reservations in Mars, Earth and Europa. The Anthozoans have the Saturn Jupiter fields and a couple of prime Lagrange points. And then there's us."
"They locked me up. Locked me up, Ache. Because of what I am."
I hit the park sprinting.
"And what are you?" I pulled the secret door open and dove inside. Swift and elegant, I didn't move I flowed.
"Escape," Slow said.
We sprinted over ice and snow and above Behemoths kept up their crawl along the Receiver Array. Then they began to explode.
"Over eight hundred years ago the Simpson Sentiences made their presence felt. What had just been background noise became thunderous sentience. Humankind embarrassed them, seemed a little too dim-witted to inflict on the galaxy. It froze my engines, tiny and powerful as they were, and those of my service craft, grounded them, and made me swell not light years from earth but light days. I'm the first and the last. Meant to seed a world not clumps of Oort.
"We're too dangerous. Too close to the lip of the well. A human, Spartoi or womb-sprung, in the inner sectors can't fart with the Intelligence not knowing about it. But here things were never that easy. I've been working a long time to stall them, I think they always considered me a black sheep, a bone-mad monster, but still one of them. City-presences are AIs after all. Well we'll show them."
My guts churned - just as Slow churned in my head. "So you've faked your suicide. And what better time than the anniversary of your entrapment."
"Clever you, but then you have a goodly part of my brain. Not suicide though. The city will shake, the city will tumble but most will survive. I've left enough of myself for that. And no bone hunting after now."
Dresden waited as she always waited, front legs tapping the ground. "Okay my darling; it's time to burn."
Another behemoth flared above, throwing Dresden's spider form into sharp relief. The eight thick legs, the eight bright eyes, the vorpal, venomous fangs.
My eyes picked out weird shiftings in the spider's guts, odd circuitry coming to life; her fangs steaming up, dripping venom that froze before it came anywhere near hitting the ground.
I shuffled in close and began to free the first leg from the rock.
"Careful," Dresden said. "My legs are delicate and I'd like to keep the octet."
I ignored her. A few moments and the leg had come free. It patted me on the back, a nervous tapping that in turn filled me with a kind of shaky glee. One by one I released the legs, until the spider let out a shriek of delight. "Free. Free. Free."
"So where do we go from here?" I asked. "I've fulfilled my part of the bargain, now it's your turn."
Dresden's eyes flared. "Indeed it is."
I didn't even see the fangs, just felt their cold venom rush into my blood. Ice.
"Slow wants your bones. You and me, we're all she needs to seed a world, she had less when she made this. Don't worry, the sedative is quite fast. You asked, where do we go from here? A long, long way." Dresden chuckled her weighty abdomen throbbed. "Spiders are starships. We're going to escape. Let them detect this one little launch amongst all that background radiation. Ha ha, grounded no more." Webbing spun tight around my limbs. "You're bound for the stars, my boy. Exciting isn't it?"
Another Behemoth blew, as my elegances drifted into sleep -- a much nicer sensation than forced removal -- my lids grew heavy.
Dresden's legs wrapped around my web cocooned body -- a fluttery cage -- her engines fired and then we were gone. Hidden by our city's conflagration. Slow behind, still a city slowed and Slow purring in my head, all swift and star bound again.
"You got my bones all right." I slurred. "But what will you do with them?"
Dresden and Slow both laughed.
"That's something for the three of us to find out," Slow said.
Then the venom swallowed me at last, and all I and my bones knew, for an eon or two, was night.
This story originally appeared in Aurealis.