Just inside the curtain, the tube looked like an old sewer pipe that had been repurposed, or maybe just that had been drained and left otherwise as-is. It was dark, grungy, empty, and lacked the windows and air conditioner units that made the other tubes habitable. But only a few meters in, they turned through an opening in the side, pushed aside another curtain - this one made of draped, sparkling strands of fiber-optic filament - and stepped into something totally other. Rakkel's jaw gaped. Even Welton stopped for a moment to take it in.
The room on the other side wasn't very large, but it looked large compared to the cramped tunnel outside. Its walls were piled with heaps and mounds of what looked like natural stone, crusted with limestone deposits. On top of this, wax candles had been adhered everywhere, slathered with frozen drips and runnels of wax. None of the candles, Rakkel noticed, were lit; the light came from somewhere else. This seemed like a missed opportunity to xir, and a pretty major one. Or was xe missing something?
Aside from that omission, the effect was total and complete. The floor was covered in smooth, white sand. Even the air felt cool and slightly damp.
"Good, isn't it?" said Welton.
"It's pretty incredible," agreed Rakkel.
"Salmidon loves effect. He's expert at it."
The white sand wound back and forth around a couple of stone outcrops before vanishing around a bend. Welton led the way deeper into the cave.
"Come in," said a voice, unnecessarily.
They went around the bend.
Salmidon hung from the ceiling in the middle of his lair, a continuation of the faux-cave that spread and rose around them, bulbously. He looked at first like an octopus. This was wrong - obviously, his intention was to look like a spider, and as Rakkel took in more detail, comprehending it piece by piece, the spider came into focus and the octopus receded. Not that Salmidon had a bio mod, or at least not the same sort that Rakkel and Welton wore. His extra legs were mechanical, not biological, and made no effort to look organic. They were all metal and wires and bare circuitboard, wearing their artificiality proudly.
In the middle, currently inverted, his upper torso hung suspended, everything supported by a network of what might very well have been real spider silk, or pale wiring, or maybe just fishing line used artfully. Whatever it was, it was clearly something strong enough to support his weight.
He wore rectangular glasses. His short, dirty-blonde hair looked slightly unwashed. His forehead had pimples on it.
"Hello," he said in the voice of someone who hopes the person he's talking to is as impressed as he thinks they should be.
"Hello," said Welton.
Considering the two of them together, Rakkel thought Welton looked more impressive. His elegant red jacket, his soft fur, the pale cream of his face, all seemed realer than Salmidon's ostentatious theater. And he had the audacity to be a pig, of all animals, and to make it look good. Though there was some sort of defiant energy there that Salmidon had as well - a willingness to be oneself despite everything. If xir first impression was accurate.
Rakkel didn't think xe had that energy. Xe was just xirself, no "despite" involved.
As Salmidon flipped himself over and lowered himself to the ground, Rakkel saw that the mechanical legs surrounded a pair of flesh ones. The flesh ones looked weak. Almost flimsy, even. As Salmidon reached the floor, the eight spider legs gathered themselves inward and folded around the human legs, taking the weight instead of them.
"It's the pig," said Salmidon. "And another freak."
"Excuse me?" said Rakkel.
"Er, yes," said Welton. "Um. We have some business for you."
"Not sure my services are available to freaks," said Salmidon. "And I thought I made it clear the other day, pig, that your presence is unwanted. If you abandon the human race, then the glories of human technology are not for you anymore."
Rakkel reflected on the fact that just because someone is themself despite everything, doesn't mean that the thing they are is particularly worth being.
"Yeah, but I thought maybe, you know... I mean, we're customers, now."
"I'll decide if you're customers." He stepped forward toward Rakkel. The strands of whatever that had held him suspended in midair were still connected to his legs. As he walked, they jerked and twisted like puppet strings.
"You," he said to xir. "What are you?"
"A lemur," Rakkel almost said, and then "a traveller," and then "a person, thank you very much, who has enough self-respect not to take that kind of crap," and then "just leaving."
What Rakkel actually said was, "I'm not sure. What are you?"
"Turning the question back on me, are we? Hmm." He put his fingers on his chin in a very deliberate thinking sort of gesture. "What do you think I am?"
"A human, allegedly" or "a freak, just like us" or "A total nerd" or "so far, not very polite" all went through Rakkel's head.
"I don't know yet," xe said. "Maybe you could show us."
"Huh. There's a tack I haven't seen before." He stepped back. "Frankly," he said, "I can't stand you animal people. So I'm reluctant to take your business. But since you asked, I suppose I could demonstrate a bit of what I'm all about. I make things," he said, proudly. "Digital things. Magical things. I'm the wiz of gizmos. Whatever you're looking for, I can give you something better."
Rakkel still felt off-balance, not sure what to do about this person, or how to feel about him - other than offended, but even that was uncertain, because xe wasn't sure xe understood what he really thought or whether xe really cared what he thought enough to be offended by it - or what xe wanted from him. He seemed grotesque to xir. And yet, he seemed like a person. Wholly, utterly a person, with all the flaws that came along with being a person. So xe couldn't totally despise him. Not on some level.
But even if xe could decide what xe wanted from him, xe then faced the problem of getting that, which was its own whole deal. He seemed to have some sort of complex fragile ego that needed to be carefully navigated. Xe didn't know how to navigate it and resented needing to. Maybe xe shouldn't even bother trying. But something had made xir hold back from saying anything to deliberately offend him a moment ago.
"Freak," though. Really? Really?
"We want something repaired," said Welton.
"Repair? Nothing, pah. I can do better than repair. I can enhance, upgrade, replace." He waved his arms. "Show it to me and prepare to be amazed."
Rakkel fished the Freeview 6M out of xir messenger bag and handed it over, thought not without some trepidation. Xe wondered if xe'd walk out of here needing to go find a new one to purchase somewhere else in the marketplace.
He took it and carried it over to the wall, unfolding his mechanical legs again as he walked. Without the suport, his flesh legs hung limply. But the mechanical ones made him taller. He lifted himself up with them to a shelf in the wall, where he studied the device.
"Its vertex buffer unit has come unseated," he said.
"Exactly," said Welton.
"And a couple of these capacitors need to be replaced. And the lenses could do with an upgrade, and the firmware is certainly out of date, and the frames are chipped here and here. It's a piece of junk. I could repair it, but you're better off replacing it."
"I just want to-" said Rakkel.
"Except that it's a Freeview 6M," he continued, "so anything modern you could find to replace it with would be crap in comparison. They don't make them like this anymore. They can't. This comes from the age of luxury, when resources were more abundant. Fortunately for you, you brought it to me. I can repair it easily. And upgrade the firmware. And maybe even replace the lenses with something better."
"Great," said Rakkel, without much emotion.
"Come back in a little while. And be prepared to pay. My genius doesn't come cheap."
And here it was. Rakkel should've been thinking about this problem. Xe'd been distracted, though, and had forgotten it was even an issue.
"I don't actually have any money," xe said.
"Of course not. Like the base animal you chose to become." He scowled. It wasn't the sort of scowl a real person scowls. It was a stage-scowl, exaggerated so the people in the farthest seats could see it too.
"Look, I'd rather just do this myself. I was hoping you'd let me borrow your tools for a bit-"
"Ha! Like I'd let you get your grubby paws anywhere near them. No, it doesn't matter. I'm committed now. You can pay with money, or you can pay with some form of menial labor, the exact nature of which we'll determine later. Go away for five hours, and then come back. It'll be better than new when you return."
"Fine," said Rakkel.
Xe left. Welton hurried after xir.
"Where did you even meet this guy," said Rakkel as they emerged into the greater market area, "and how do you put up with him, and why did you ever think that his service is what I wanted or needed?"
"He's not so bad, is he? A little eccentric, I'll grant you."
"Eccentric? Or just abusive?"
"Abusive?" Welton seemed honestly surprised.
"All that business about freaks and how great humans are. You didn't think that was abusive?"
"It's no worse than I usually get. I suppose he does give it his own special flavor."
"Nobody else we've met today talked to us like that!"
"How about the man who took one look at me and ran away screaming?"
Rakkel considered this. "Well," xe said, "but he didn't call you a 'base animal' or anything like that."
"Not in so many words, no. And anyway, Salmidon is a genius."
"You really think so? You really do think so, don't you. I didn't see a genius. I saw a guy who wants you to think he's a genius, because he's so insecure."
"You haven't seen his actual work, though. Other than his legs. He built those himself."
"So? I mean, they're kind of impressive, I guess. But it's all just... it's something else for him to hide behind. You know?"
"He can't walk without them," said Welton.
"Yeah, but he built them like that, all spidery, and then he has the gall to call us freaks."
"Because he's insecure," said Welton. "Like you said. He doesn't want us to call him a freak, so he calls us freaks first."
Rakkel thought about that.
"Okay," xe said, "but that doesn't make it okay for him to say it."
"Look, I don't know about you, but I knew what I was signing up for when I got the body mod. I knew how my family would react. I knew how everyone else would react. Even cousin Doople keeps calling me a 'weirdo,' even if there's no malice in it. I knew I'd need to grow a thick skin. You're the only person I've ever met since then who I've felt I don't need to be, by default, at least a little bit on guard around. Salmidon gives me crap, but he doesn't mean it as a way of attacking me. He means it as a way of defending himself. Really, it's all just about himself anyway - not about us. That's shallow of him, but a fair sight better than some people. I've met folks who wanted to hurt me for it, not just insult me. Who wanted to kill me for it. I don't know what your experience has been..."
Rakkel looked uncomfortable. "Not like that," xe said. "I come from a family of lemurs. All three of my parents are lemurs. And everyone else in our community is something other than stock human. I got my mod when I was twelve, so I've practically been a lemur for longer than I've been a human, and even before then, I thought of myself as- are you okay?"
"No," said Welton. "No, I'm not. I need to sit down."
The problem with Forash Market was that although any number of people throughout its twists and turns would be all too happy to sell him a chair, the fundamental structure of the area was such that actual places to sit and rest for anyone but the merchants were few and far between. After all, anyone who sat and rested wasn't looking at merchandise. Which flew right in the face of the whole market's essential purpose.
Nevertheless, he found a bare stretch of wall to slide down and squat against.
"Why would you ever leave?" he asked xir after regaining his composure. "A whole community of people like us?"
Rakkel felt inexplicably annoyed. "You know," xe said, "you didn't have to get modded. You could've stayed stock human yourself. If having people around who are like you is such a big deal to you."
Welton looked hurt. "No," he said, "I couldn't have."
"Yes, you could have! And then nobody would ever call you a freak or whatever. You'd have your community right here."
"No! I am what I am. I had to mod, because that's me. This is me." He touched the tip of his flat snout. "This is."
"But you keep going on as though you did something brave," said Rakkel, "and now you're some kind of tragic, oppressed outcast or something, and you totally brought it upon yourself."
"You don't understand," said Welton. "YOU don't understand. You don't understand?"
"I guess not," said Rakkel.
"I thought you understood," said Welton, his voice hollow.
"That's not really my fault," said Rakkel. Xe turned away. "Thanks for trying to help me, I guess," xe said, "but I think I can find my own way from here." Xe walked away, leaving Welton slumped in the dirt. He only got up again after Rakkel had left his sight.
Welton stepped through the door into Doople's apartment with shoulders slumped. He slammed the door behind himself. Doople hadn't opened yet - probably just as well, Welton thought. He didn't want to deal with anyone right now.
"Welton? Is that you?"
Though, of course, just because Doople hadn't opened yet didn't mean he wasn't home.
"It's me," said Welton.
"Good! Come up here. I have someone I want you to meet."
Great, thought Welton. Just what he needed. Someone else to meet.
"Grab some meat buns while you're down there," Doople added.
Welton grabbed some meat buns. He put then in the toaster oven, set the timer as high as he reasonably could without ruining them, and watched it tick down. As the dial turned, he took measured breaths. He'd been looking forward to taking his lousy mood up to his bunk, so he could have a good mope there for a while, but whoever Doople's new friend was, they didn't deserve to have Welton's funk inflicted on them, so he'd have to get it under control.
If he'd just been angry at Rakkel, it would've been easy. Rakkel was far away and therefore made for a defenseless target. Mostly, though, he was just angry at himself, and he was right here. And lonely, besides. He'd been lonely for a while, of course, but he'd gotten used to it. And then Rakkel - for just a short while - had made him feel not so lonely after all. And now... he wasn't used to it, suddenly. And it stung. And that's why he was angry at himself, because he'd made all kinds of bad assumptions, and he'd let his defenses down, and he shouldn't have.
The toaster oven startled him with its obnoxious buzzing noise. He cursed at himself. He'd meant to use the timer as a focus to calm himself down, and then he'd totally lost track of it. Now he wasn't calmed down at all.
Oh well. Nothing he could do about it.
He took the buns out, put them on a tray, and brought it up the stairs.
Then he turned the corner, saw who Doople's guest was, and dropped them all over the floor.