Plugs

The Coelacanth Coat
A coat of coelacanth skin, royal blue with milky patches. Vat-grown to order and seamless. Lost tech out of the lost time. The fit always reminded Aurelia the coat was tailored for someone centuries dead: shoulders loose, waist tight, arms a little long.

When she got it, she emptied the pockets, kept the contents in a box in a desk drawer.

Powerhouses
Take things there to recharge. Leave them overnight. Come back.

Lingering’s said to be unhealthy. There’s a shivering you feel in the air, and you can tell it’s coming from outside you, not inside.

They’re big, multitiered platforms like circular parking garages.

Drive your car in on the pad of the lowest level or climb the stairs in the central column to charge smaller objects on the upper levels. Set them on the concrete, or on the wooden shelves that seem to decay too quickly. No metal shelves, and you’ll want to leave coins and belt buckles outside.

What Was in the Coat Pockets
Coins with geometric designs, a scrap of scarlet paper. A metal cylinder, the segments of which could be twisted so that the lines etched on it connected in different ways. It didn’t do anything else.

The Powerhouse at the Foot of the Mountain
Powerhouses nearer to the reinhabited cities had managers and waiting lists; this one had nothing but a few pilgrims and the occasional curious visitor. So the Walking City stopped there twice a year to unload its powercells and recharge.

The first years after she came to the future, Aurelia travelled with the Walking City. One time they stopped there, she climbed the spiral stair to the top floor and left that metal cylinder on a shelf between a straylight mirror and a couple of moon keys.

Powerhouse By Night
She reconsidered, went back just after sunset.

Her fillings tingled. The ring she’d forgotten to remove ached. The night spooky with all the charging objects glowing. A sound like rushing wind, but the air utterly still.

After
Her coat’s scales were dull dead brown.

The metal tube was now a telescope that showed a world that didn’t exist anymore, a world of crystal towers and floating bubblecars. The future that had come and gone while she’d been in suspension. Looking through, she felt a sort of sunset sadness.

She gave it to a friend, someone future-born. He loved it.

I saw her at the roof-races, her crimson stilt-car ambling along at the middle of the pack. Her name, I didn’t catch, but the winking skull icon on the hood was hard to forget.

I saw it again at the hot-air balloon demolition derby, on the chute she used to bail out amid the aerial apocalypse that took the field from fifty contests to three in moments. She waved, perhaps in my direction.

I met her at last in the undercity after the giant eel slalom. She was dripping into the celebratory champagne, and giddy before her first sip. She’d placed in the top five.

“I’ve seen you,” she said, “in the stands, always with that hat. I’ve taken it as a good luck charm.” She handed me a flute of watery bubbly. “Please keep wearing it.”

I stammered something, but she was swept into the crowd of well-wishers and people who’d won money on her.

It wasn’t a hat. It was a job, a series of hats I was paid to wear, some kind of advertising campaign building through the tournament months. But as long as they looked similar, she’d get her luck, and I’d get my paycheck.

The next hat, the next event went fine. I sat just behind the reviewing stand at the skate-boat regatta–I got a bonus for visibility. The winking skull sloop placed twelfth, enough for a small cash prize–bonuses all round.

But the next was all disasters. I overslept, arrived late, only found a seat in the second mezzanine; the hat wasn’t much like the others, and looked even less like them the way I’d thrown it on; she was eliminated before the first intermission.

“Combat opera,” she said when I found her, alone, backstage, “Easier than it looks. Until you miss a cue.” She smiled behind the icepack. “I’m done.”

“There’s the ornithopter relays,” I said. “The mole-machine rally. Tournament season’s barely begun.”

“No, tonight was it. The launch.”

“Launch?”

“The icon,” she said. Then the crowd found her, and I lost her.

Ad world connections told me the winking skull mark auctioned well the next morning. I saw it frequently over the next months, openly on tea packets and fig tins, subliminally in magazine photo shadows.
Next spring, her stilt-car bore a laughing rhino logo and I resolved to keep wearing my motley-lapelled smoking jackets through the season, to see what luck would bring us.

Note: This story, while it stands alone, belongs to the Anan Muss series.

Anan Muss was careful, but not so careful he didn’t make mistakes (after all, a legion of King Ash’s slitters once sliced arc-blades at his head on every quantum-entanglement port).   Anan’s caution primarily meant it took longer to do simple tasks–as if his brain had rocketed to light-speed, slowing down his relative time.  Washing, ironing, and folding laundry usually cost him a weekend, even with robots. Cleaning his apartment required a week’s vacation.

Love was trickier.  He took his time in courtship:  a month to muster the courage to ask women to the aquarium theater, to talk intimately and walk the hanging orchid gardens, yet another month to kiss beneath bridges by the canals, and a year later to fall helplessly in love.  The year after that might have been marriage, he supposed, but women rarely waited long enough for him to ask them out.

Luckily, the second-generation AI ladies appeared in Japan.  All the shy lads wanted one.  By design, quantities were low, demand high.  One would have cost his year’s accounting salary.

So Anan mail-ordered one of those borderline real phonies made in China.  His fingers trembled as he unwrapped her.  Her skin–a soft, off-ivory–accentuated her raven-black hair.  His heart wanted to gallop away, but he reined it in.  She accepted his hand and stepped out of the box, “Am I not beautiful?”

Caught off-guard, yet ever poetic, Anan sought the right words:  “Yes…. I mean, no…. I mean, you are beautiful.”

“Love me, and I will be whomever you want.”

“Being yourself is enough although contents may settle, like cereal in a box.”

“And you will be whomever I want you to be.”

“Sure.  Within the limits of my present brain pattern.”

She laid plans of their future together.  He said he hoped she would have patient understanding, be someone he could share words with, someone who’d sharpen him gently, someone who would challenge and accept challenge.  “That’s exactly who I am,” she said, mentioning her unparalleled poetic sensibility.

As he painted her a porcelain love poem, he spoke of this inane idea he’d had of dating women virtually–not for love per se, but to understand women better.

He handed her his poem:

Laxity in

love milks

the black


swell of

twisted minutes

into hours

She shattered the porcelain and stalked away.  “I have no time for words.”

“She’s right.”  Anan sifted through the broken chips.  “It’s not much of a love poem.”

A noise, and he was nudged out of bed. Grabbing a random blunt instrument, he flicked on the living room light-switch.
He saw the body, and adrenaline banished sleep. A man, perhaps mid-thirties, collapsed on top of the coffee table. He could see the unpleasant blue purple bulge of the man’s cheek pushing against one of his wife’s magazines.
A mad rush of fear and panic, and he went through the house throwing doors open and turning on lights. He went through the whole house till it was lit like a department store. Nothing. Everything was locked, no windows broken.
As gently as he could, he rolled the body off the table. He touched the man’s cheek, and it was icy cold. He searched the clammy flesh around his neck for a pulse, checked the man’s wrist. Nothing. The intruder stared up blankly at him with a pair of dead lizard eyes.
He wanted to be sick. Somehow he remembered an old first-aid course, remembered something about clearing airways. He went to loosen the man’s tie and unbutton his shirt, but something was wrong.
The entire suit was a fake, one piece of clothing. Shirt, tie, pockets, waistcoat, all stitched together. The buttons were there but they had no purpose.
‘What the hell?’ the man managed. He gave up trying the help the intruder. Once, years ago, he checked on his elderly mother and found she’d died in her sleep. She’d been dead for hours, and looked much like this.
Even though the waistband of the trousers was stitched to the jacket, the pockets were real, and gritting his teeth he checked them. There was no keys or papers, nothing but a wallet. Feeling the cold bulge of the man’s buttock through the fabric, he eased the wallet free.
There were papers and cards in there, but they wouldn’t fool anyone. They looked like poor copies of photographs, the writing illegible. There was money, but it wouldn’t even pass muster for a game of Monopoly, let alone buy anything anywhere. He found some coins in the zipper compartment, but they were blank silver discs.
This was definitely a puzzle. A dead man was here, who couldn’t possibly have gotten in, wearing counterfeit clothes and possessing the most childish of counterfeit identities.
He phoned the police for help. The operator assured him that the army were collecting bodies street by street now, and that they’d load this particular corpse onto a flatbed truck as soon as they could.

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