Welton wanted bananas.
Something had made him think of bananas, and now he craved them. He knew there was this little banana stand down along Major Big Commerce Pipe that sold artisinal bananas. They had all sorts of crazy, flavored bananas. They had bananas that tasted like peanut butter, or like beef jerky, or like cantaloupe.
He set his AR spectacles to show the path to it.
The arrows on the ground led him through the tubes, up and down and around the stalls and shops, until he reached the stand. He'd already been here a couple of times after stumbling across it on his first day. It stood on good territory: Right off the side of the marketplace's major thoroughfare, or at least one of its major thoroughfares, or at least a segment of tube that would have been one of its major thoroughfares if the constant morass of foot traffic that clogged the tubes at all hours obeyed any real rules or patterns. It wasn't large, but it didn't need to be. The tower of striped umbrellas protruding up from the top of the booth like a unicorn's horn attracted more than enough attention, and its reputation made up for whatever attention that would miss.
Which meant, among other things, that there was a queue in front of it.
Just beyond was a used bookstore, set up like so many other sellers' areas across the entire diameter of the tunnel so that marketgoers had to walk through all of its shelves to get to wherever they really wanted to go. The bookstore had a low ceiling because there was a second floor to it, albeit tiny and rickety and made of mismatched lumber. On alternate days, the banana stand directed its customers to line up into the bookstore. The rest of the time, they lined up in the other direction, around the corner of a t-junction and past rows of tarp-covered tables on which minor merchants set up temporary displays for their knick-knacks. The minor merchants came and went, but the owner of the tables, who made a fortune renting them out, stayed. Technically, he didn't own the space in which they were set up. That would have gone against the rules of Forash Market, which prohibited claiming space and then renting it out. Instead, he just owned the tables, which were not only very conveniently placed, but also obnoxiously heavy, so nobody who rented them bothered to move them anywhere else.
Arguments about how the queue should snake its way through the grid of tables were not the concern of the banana stand's proprietor. They did, however, turn violent sometimes.
But today, the queue went through the bookstore, which Welton approved of. He squeezed his way to the back of the line and happily browsed titles while the line proceeded forward banana by banana.
The best part of browsing titles was that it took his mind off the Rakkel situation. If there was a situation there at all anymore. Apparently, the lemur had snuck past him at the curtain, collected her AR device, and snuck out again, either by the mother of all coincidences, or - he had to assume this was the case - because she was deliberately avoiding him. Going well out of her way to avoid him, in fact. He'd mostly been camped right there, right in front of the curtain, and with nothing better to do than watch every person who walked past. And of course, Rakkel tended to stand out. Most people weren't covered in black and white and gray fur. So she'd only have been able to get past him if she'd timed it perfectly. He imagined her lurking behind a stall, watching him carefully for who knew how long, waiting for him to leave his post so she could make her move.
He realized he hadn't read a single book title. He wasn't even sure what genre this section was for.
Why did it bother him so much? Couldn't he just let her go? He'd only known her for, what, 24 hours tops. They'd had a couple of conversations and one walk through the city together. They'd stopped to look at a neat bridge. That was it. He'd gotten her tangled up with Salmidon, but apparently that hadn't caused any problems for her after all. So much for the apology he owed her.
Of course, there was also their shared status as body-modders. But though it certainly counted as something they had in common, it was also the issue they'd parted ways over. Rakkel's experience as a lemur clearly had nothing to do whatsoever with Welton's experience as a pig. It meant something fundamentally different to her than his identity did to him. Apparently.
Had her parents really been lemurs too? He couldn't even wrap his head around that one. He tried to imagine his parents as pigs. Not only couldn't he do it, but he found he didn't want to. It felt intrusive, or offensive. They didn't deserve to be pigs, something like that.
He'd never asked her, why a lemur? And partly that was because he didn't want her or anyone else to ask him, why a pig? He couldn't answer that. In fact, he remembered, she had asked him, and he'd tried to answer her and never did. Certainly, there were 'better' animals to be. Wolves, cats, foxes, things like that. The facility he'd gone to had had a whole book full of pictures of werewolf-looking people - just the wolves, no other species. People would still call him a freak if he'd gone for a wolf morph, but he suspected it'd be subtly different. People liked wolves. Whereas they had a special sort of contempt for pigs.
And then you got people like Havid, who reveled in that contempt and all the gross imagry that surrounded it. Who encouraged it. Havid didn't want to be a pig, Welton thought. He wanted to be the thing people used pigs as a symbol of. Like someone getting an owl morph because they wanted to be seen as wise. But not, when it came down to it, because they wanted to be seen as an owl.
Welton wondered if Rakkel wanted to be a lemur, or wanted to be seen as whatever people saw lemurs as. He had no idea what people saw lemurs as. Cousin Doople hadn't even been able to consistently remember how to pronounce the word "lemur," so if he was any indication, the answer was that people didn't see lemurs as anything.
And maybe that was it - the reason he wanted so especially to get to know Rakkel and have a connection with her. Not just because she was a fellow body-modder, but because she'd modded her body for the same ephemeral reason as he had, whatever that was. It wasn't just a fashion statement for her. It was an expression of her true identity.
Except if her parents had both been lemurs, maybe that meant she had a different reason entirely: She was just following in her parents' footsteps. She might not have even had a real choice. Modded at the age of twelve? Was that even legal? Certainly it didn't seem ethical, now that he gave it its due consideration. Of course she'd been a lemur. When you're twelve, you're still mostly just a continuation of what your parents want you to be, right? You don't even have an identity yet. Right?
Unless you were like Welton, whose parents were so awful, he'd been precocious in his rebelliousness. He'd already wanted nothing to do with either them, or the snotty little snob they wanted him to be. But he knew he was quite unique in that regard.
So maybe Rakkel was the polar opposite of Welton in all respects. Everything he'd thought made them similar came from the place where they were most different. She went all the way through the "Havid" sense of identity and out the other side, where one chose a morph for no real reason at all. Her body-modder-hood was empty. Totally hollow.
"Well?" said the banana seller. "What'll it be?" He smirked and added, "we don't have slop-flavored."
Welton looked up in surprise. He'd already made it to the end of the line. Quickly, he consulted the menu.
"I'll have a chocolate-dipped chipotle," he said.
Together, they partook in the sacred ritual of the marketplace: Currency was exchanged for goods. Muffled sniggering wasn't an official part of this process, but since it didn't technically disrupt the exchange, it was allowed to happen. No gods descended from the heavens to protect Welton's dignity.
He walked away in an odd mood, unsure if his negative feelings were more because of Rakkel, or Havid, or just because of the banana seller's rudeness, or all of the above. Whatever they were, he didn't care for them much.
It took Rakkel the length of several heartbeats to realize that xe stood in a hallway identical to the one Mme. Flore had led xir down. The carpet was what tipped xir off: It had the same design of gray and black retangles. The bright lights, however, had been ommitted. Instead, the place fluttered restlessly through the space between 'cozy' and 'gloomy.'
The smoky air didn't help. Nor did the jazz music, which sometimes hit squarely upon that mood of oh, yeah, well, that's how it is, all right... and then twisted improvisationally away into something eerie, haunting, and frankly unjazzlike. Or so Rakkel felt, although xe'd be the first to admit xe knew next to nothing about jazz. Generally, there were saxophones in it, xe was pretty sure.
Xe did suspect that it wasn't being played live. The sound just wasn't rich enough, and had a tinge of distortion to it. Compression artifacts, maybe. Xe felt mystified, but also that xe was intruding on something. Xe turned to leave.
Then hesitated. Did xe want to find out what was happening here, or not? Did xe mean to only pretend at curiosity? To come this far and then to back out would be worse than not coming here at all.
So xe advanced cautiously down the hallway.
The jazz pulsed and blarted and swung and had fits. It settled into a cool, rainy blues-like mood. An occasional note of disharmony found its way in, as if to keep the listener on their toes, but otherwise Rakkel found it calming.
Someone had put butcher paper over the insides of the windows and doors leading to the rooms on either side of the hallway. Xe tried a handle and found it was locked. Then xe found a window on which the butcher paper's edges were curling, and peered through one of the tiny cracks. The room on the other side was unlit, save for splinters of smoky, dim light around the butcher paper's edges, but as far as Rakkel could tell, it looked exactly the same as the one down Mme. Flore's hallway. Same big, round table, same black deskchairs inverted on top with their wheels sticking in the air. Same dust everywhere.
Were the hallways connected? Part of the same huge, old, long-ago-abandoned office building? Probably they were.
But that didn't explain the jazz, or the smoke.
Images flashed in Rakkel's mind of an ancient music system short-circuiting to life and spewing out the sound of its last-set playlist and the smoke of its slowly melting innards, ready to either collapse into nothing or explode into flames at any moment. But that didn't seem realistic. Never mind that it'd be unlikely for it to both spew this thick, heavy (herbal?) smoke and actually operate correctly at the same time - what were the odds it'd just started doing that right before xe happened to decide on a whim to do a bit of light trespassing?
The music and the smoke both grew thicker as xe proceeded down the hallway. Xe was glad for the thick, dusty carpeting, light on xir feet though xe was. Whoever was listening to the music - because there must be someone, right? Not to mention whoever was smoking the joint, or cigar, or severely mishandling the e-cigarette, or whatever was going on in there - seemed to be at the very end of the hallway. Certainly, the smoke grew thicker and the music grew louder as Rakkel got farther down it.
The jazz took another turn, into a faster, more upbeat style. The dischordant notes came more and more often. Was it meant to go like that?
Xe thought for a moment it was all coming from the local instance of the lounge room where xe hadn't had any tea with Mme. Flore, but then xe passed it and still hadn't reached a source.
At this point, the smoke had gotten so thick xe walked with one hand over xir snout and the other outstretched. Xe stopped for a moment to pull a handkerchief out of xir messenger bag and tie it around xir face. This helped somewhat, but only somewhat. At least now xe could use both of xir arms to feel xir way forward.
Xe couldn't even remember what had been at the end of the hallway. Only that it hadn't gone much farther after the lounge. They'd walked back up it towards the entrance a bit to get to the second floor. Maybe there had been just one more door on the right? Xe went over and started feeling along the right wall.
Xe found a handle. Xe turned it.