Hansette was terribly nervous as she walked up to the large, dirty white building. The windows were trimmed in peeling, rusting painted metal and the door was tremendously heavy, or seemed so. She pushed it open, glancing around at the young men who stood in the alley across from the door. They leered at her and beckoned to her. She turned away and walked through the door.
The entryway was high and dark, poorly lit by what filtered down through a skylight in the roof. The floor was made of shattered, faded tiles. This had been a great house once, she could tell, but it was broken up into what seemed like a thousand apartments now. There was laundry strung across the stairwell, curtains of it as far up as she could see, bridging the gap from one landing to another. The entryway was incredibly noisy, too, full of the sounds of children crying and old men talking to each other around their heavy pipes. Several people bustled by her just in the few moments she paused in the entryway. She didn't see their faces but she heard their curses loud and clear.
She gathered her nerves and marched up to the curtained-off doorway with the sign over it that said "Landlord." She pushed back the curtain.
The room she looked into was small and cluttered. The walls were lined with bookshelves full of huge old ledgers, interrupted by a bed, a desk and a window that looked out onto a bare and dirty courtyard with a well and discarded laundry in it. The bed was unmade and the sheets were a rather filthy blue. The desk was cluttered with ledgers, inkwells and old pens. The blotter was stained and ripped.
Seated at a desk before her was a huge, red-bearded man, his arms all muscle, his legs almost filling the pants that were supposed to be baggy. On his torso, he wore nothing but a vest and it hung open, revealing a large, wired plate set in the center of his chest – the work of a metasurgeon. A ridge of scar tissue surrounded it. Hansette studied it enviously. He was smoking a thick, noxious cigar. His mouth disappeared when he closed it, leaving just a cigar hanging out between his beard and his mustache.
When he noticed her, he stood up. He was almost two feet taller than her.
"What do you want, girly?" he asked, pulling the cigar out of his mouth.
"I want a room, please, sir," she stammered. The landlord intimidated her.
"You want a room, please, sir?" He laughed and took a key down from a rack above his desk. "Show me a week's rent and you'll get a room, please, sir."
She looked at him for a moment.
"Thirty-five Anapura Dollars a week," he said, leaning over her. "And that's not including the use of the kitchen or the clothes-washer. Show us the money, or go back to the Satellites."
Hansette didn't like that he had picked her out so easily as a being from the Satellites. She knew she was a farm girl, but she had hoped she'd been able to hide it. No, it was her full, rough skirt and short, loose jacket that gave her away. The plaid shawl, pulled carefully up to cover her hair, probably didn't help. She took forty ADs out of her skirt pocket and showed them to him. She'd been careful to change some of her money at the station and then put it in the special pocket inside her pocket.
He took the bills from her, sniffed them, held them up to the light.
"They're good," he grunted, a note of surprise and annoyance in his voice. He took a key down from the rack that hung over his desk. "Room 4C. Fourth floor, got the number on it." He took a pull at his cigar and looked at her thoughtfully. "What are you doing here, girly?"
"Looking for work," she said. She took the key he offered and marched off up the stairs, jaw set. She walked right by the old men who sat on the landings and the children who played on the metal gratings between the doors. The rooms were connected by gratings and the stairs were forged from steel. Everything was open, crosshatched metal forming corridors and stairwells. Hansette didn't much like the way they rattled and clanged against the walls when she walked on them, but she made her way bravely to the fourth floor, which was directly under the roof.
There were only three rooms on the fourth floor, 4A, 4B and 4C. 4A was occupied, she could see. Just below the number (painted hurriedly in red on the raw metal doorframe) someone had pasted a piece of paper. "Jupiter Virilium, Chanteur." She had no idea what a "Chanteur" was, but she pushed through the curtain to room 4C hurriedly, lest she meet this Jupiter Virilium.
She deposited her one small bag on the floor, then sat down on the bed.
The room had a window, which was nice, except that it was dizzyingly high up. It let in a little light, too. The floor was solid, thank gods, made from the same material as the building and completely bare except for a rodent's nest in the corner. There were several small hooks lined up on one wall and a small lamp in the corner that could be brightened or dimmed according to one's preference. It was off now. The bed was low, just a mattress on the floor, without even a blanket to cover it. There was a low table next to the bed with an aged, glass carafe on it, obviously the remnant of a former owner. In another corner was a large, rectangular closet with a lock like a safe.
The room was cold yet stuffy. She opened the window and wash of warm air and steam flooded into the room. That was the problem with Anapura. The false atmosphere, kept in with thick plastiglass plates in their metal network. The whole city was cold but full of steam, lit from above by yellowish electric light.
From her window, she could see all the way to Denn Gardens and Antelysium, and if she craned her neck, she could just see the docks and the entrance to Libra Heath. She was in Door now. Door, the docklands, bordered by criminal and artistic districts alike. Its name was entirely accurate. She could hear the docks though she couldn't quite see them. She heard the constant slip-pop of the rubber lips of the city, allowing ships in through their seal, letting out only minimal amounts of the precious atmosphere. She had come through one just half an hour ago. If she squinted up through the steamy, grimy plastiglass, she could just see the two small, glowing satellites. That was her old home, the larger one on the right. Slightly closer to the great city of Anapura, sending it food and raw materials in shipments that came through every day. She had been on one of the barges just that morning, though it seemed like a long time ago. Her family hadn't known and wouldn't until she didn't come home for lunch.
Speaking of lunch, she found that she was beginning to get hungry. She thought she could afford to venture out into the streets at lest long enough to get some food, at any rate. She quickly counted out the money she'd changed. She still had thirty-five ADs left over. Surely that would be enough. She wrapped her shawl back around her head – she knew she looked out of place but she didn't know what to do about it. Then she slipped her money back into her pocket and slipped out the curtain.
To her surprise, there was a person standing at the end of the hallway, smoking a cigarette. It was tall and thin yet somehow soft looking, with big, pale, black-rimmed eyes and soft, greasy black hair that brushed its shoulders. It wore a pair of ragged gray pants and a shirt that had been white at some point in its existence. Over this, it wore a nubbly, brownish-green kimono. Its feet were covered by stretched-out red clogs, but no socks that Hansette could see.
"Hello, neighbor," she said, rather warily.
The person nodded to her. She couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. Its nose was longish and bony.
"I'm going out. Can I get you anything?"
The person shook its head. Hansette shrugged inwardly then started down the stairs.
"Hey," the person called after her. Its voice was rough yet musical, too low for a woman but too high for a man. "Don't forget your bars."
"What?" She was halfway to the third floor.
"Your bars. You think a curtain will keep anyone out in this city?"
She clattered back up the stairs and examined her doorway, realizing, as she did so, that she'd forgotten her key. She grabbed it from the low table where she'd left it, shut the window and latched it, then examined the doorway again. There, just outside the curtain, was a hook as for a pocket door. She pulled at it and a set of bars, like the kind they have in prison, rolled out across the doorway. There was a lock mechanism right next to the wall when the bars were pulled open. She locked it with the key the landlord had given her.
"That's better," said the person.
"You're Jupiter Virilium, aren't you?" she said, remembering the piece of paper that had been pasted to the doorframe.
"Yes," said the person, coughing on its cigarette smoke and pounding itself on the chest. "That's me."
"Pleased to meet you," she said. "My name is Hansette Collins." She offered her hand, which the person took, still coughing.
"Pleasure," it said.
"Good day," she said, smiling.
It was only when she reached the second floor landing that she realized her next door neighbor was an androgyne. She shuddered slightly and convulsively wiped her hand on her skirt. Next door to an androgyne! What would her parents have said?
When she reached the ground floor, she pushed back the landlord's curtain. He was still sitting at the desk, smoking his cigar.
"I'm new here," she said. "What's a good place to eat? Not too expensive, just… clean."
"Girly," said the landlord, smiling, "those things are mutually exclusive. Try Tom's."
"Thanks," she said. She was about to duck out of the room when she suddenly thought of another question. "Who… who wired your chest?"
The landlord looked at her ironically. "Why would a pretty girl like you want to know something like that?"
She glared at him as hard as she could.
"If you must know, his name is Palmquist," said the landlord, through a haze of cigar smoke. "Lives over in Denn Gardens. But don't tell him I told you." He winked at her and smiled.
Hansette sneered and left.
Tom's, it turned out, was a meat stand, selling sausages wrapped in breading and almost-gone steaks on sticks. She bought a hot sausage stuffed in the middle of a piece of Anapura stickbread, then sat at the door of her building to eat it. It dripped grease as she walked, but if she held her hand under it as she ate, she prevented any from getting on her skirt.
As she ate, she pondered how she would find the metasurgeon named Palmquist. She knew he lived in Denn Gardens, but that was it. Denn Gardens was huge and full of crime of all sorts. Metasurgeons hid out there because their craft was officially outlawed in Anapura – one of the few such bans which were actually enforced. If the metasurgeons had been allowed to practice legally, they would have been able to give the senators and equines a literal run for their money. As it was, they were forced to practice on the black, but it didn't stop some of them from becoming fairly wealthy. But they always wore dark glasses.
With a surge of resolution, she finished her sausage and bread, wiped her hands on her skirt and stood up. She would take the train over to Denn Gardens, yes, and she would find Palmquist. It didn't matter how. She would do it.
The Sky Train clattered distressingly as it chugged and fretted its way over to Denn Gardens. It wasn't all that far from Door, but the ride seemed to take a long time. Hansette watched out the window as the buildings became steadily lower and more dilapidated, the factories less functional, the people more furtive or brazen. The light grew steadily dimmer as the car neared the station, and she realized that at least half the lights in this part of the city were out. It was with great trepidation that she climbed off the train.
The streets were dark, the alleys inhabited by terrifying creatures Hansette couldn't see properly. Men, dressed either over-fashionably or in rags, leaned against the walls and looked her brazenly up and down. The buildings here were lower, the streets lit by the signs for bars, dancehalls and fighting galleries.
Hansette almost walked quickly past another man, but stopped before she could. She looked at him timidly.
He was small and weedy, wearing a suit that was about two sizes too big for him and striped orange and scarlet. His skin was the shiny blue of the Borek, his hairless head covered by a black hat with a wide yellow and orange ribbon. His left hand held a cigarette between two skeletal, wired fingers.
"Excuse me, sir?" she asked.
He stared at her impassively.
"Where can I find a metasurgeon?"
He spat on the ground not six inches from her feet. "Why would a sweet little thing like you need a metasurgeon?"
She looked down at her feet.
"I'll tell you," said the man after a moment. "There's a man I know, lives over on Leaster Street across from the Vanmarian mission. It's down that way." He pointed down the street the way she'd been going.
"Thank you, sir," she said, earnestly. "His name wouldn't happen to be… wouldn't happen to be Palmquist, would it?"
The Borek man looked at her oddly. "Yes, it would happen to be that."
Hansette turned to walk away, but felt the iron grip of a wired hand on her shoulder.
"You don't get something for nothing in this city," said the man's voice.
She fumbled in her pocket for a moment and removed one of the AD coins – a whole dollar. She held it out behind her bag and she felt the man take it. She realized, as cool metal brushed her palm, that both his hands must have been wired. She couldn't help but wonder how he'd lost them.
"Walk fast, little sister," said the man. "These streets are mean to the likes of you."
"Thanks," she said over her shoulder. She skittered off down the street in the direction of Leaster.
The house across from the Vanmarian mission had three stories. The first and second were taken up with a dancehall. The third, however, was mostly dark, with curtains pulled across all the windows. She guessed that this must be the metasurgeon's place, a guess that was confirmed when she stepped into the little dark alcove that led to the third floor apartments. There were two bells there. One was marked "Ebenezer Scruton – Accounts." The other said "Tristao Palmquist," without any other description. She pressed the button.
A few minutes later, after letting the sounds of the dancehall a thin wall's-width away from her sink into her skin like tattoo ink, she heard the faint click of the bolt at the top of the stairs being drawn back. The door opened a little.
"Who's there?" called a hoarse voice.
"Please, sir, I'd like to speak with you," she said, coming up to the top of the stairs.
"Name and business," said the voice, "or you don't come in."
"Hansette Collins," she said. "Hopeful apprentice."
The door flew open at the last remark. The man standing behind it was rather shorter than Hansette had supposed he would be – barely her own height. He had neat, blondish hair and tan skin. His face wore a cynical expression, and his body wore rather ragged pants, shirtsleeves and a vest. He, too, wore stretched out clogs, but Hansette could see that he had thick but holey socks on under them. His eyes were covered by round, dark glasses. In the gloomy light, there was no trace of his eyes under them. A black armband, as if he was in mourning, was tied around his upper right arm.
"You're Tristao Palmquist?" she said.
"You want to be an apprentice?" She thought he looked her up and down then, but she couldn't be sure.
"Step inside for a moment," he said.
The hall she stepped into was seedy-looking, dark and low. The sounds of the dancehall vibrated up through the floor. There were only two doors on it. One once more proclaimed that Ebenezer Scruton – Accounts lived in that building. The other was unmarked. Tristao Palmquist led her through the unmarked one.
The room smelled like alcohol and blood and metal. It was fairly small, with just a desk and three chairs in it. Palmquist sat down behind the desk, leaving Hansette to sink into one of the less-comfortable chairs in front of it. The room was dimly lit but she could see that it was papered in old broadsheets and newspapers. There was a curtained window on her left as she sat down. A small fetish sat on the desk. The light was yellow and sputtering.
"So," said the man. "You want to be my apprentice? Are you sure about that?" His hands chased each other nervously across the table, though his face was calm.
"Got a reason?" he asked, smiling slightly.
"My brother," she said. "His leg got cut off in a farming accident. He died three days later from blood loss and infection, still screaming. I don't want that to happen to anyone else." She held her face in an expression of old distress.
"Interesting," he said. "What makes you think you're even capable?"
"Whenever my little sister came to me with a cut, if I just touched it before bandaging it, it'd be gone the next day," she said. "Once, one of our sheep got its leg caught in some wire. I took care of it, and after three days, the raw spot was gone."
Palmquist mulled this over for a while. Hansette was fascinated by his hands. They ran lightly over each other, each touch as delicate as a lover's. They were rather large and bony, but soft and gracefully tapered.
"Why should I take you on?" he said. "What makes you think I need an apprentice?"
"I… I hoped…" She swallowed. "I don't know who else to go to. Please, Mr. Palmquist."
He looked at her sideways, though still through the dark glasses.
"Do you know why I wear these glasses, Collins?" he said suddenly. "Do you know what happens to you when you become a metasurgeon?"
Hesitantly, she shook her head.
He swiveled in his chair to face her straight on. "If you knew, would you still become one? Would you still sacrifice the seven years? Would you still consign yourself to the criminal districts of the galaxy if this was what awaited you?"
He took off the glasses. Hansette gasped.
His eyes had no whites. They had no pupils. They were not pools of darkness, like a Borek or an animal. They were not milky white, like her blind grandmother's. They were swirling, luminescent, melting gray. No bloodshot lines crazed their surface. No sign of sight lingered in them. They seemed to absorb light and reflect it back. Their surface shone.
Tristao smiled, obviously painfully aware of his self-imposed deformity.
"Is this something you can live with? It alters your perception. You see the blood that flows through living creatures' veins, the bones that support their systems, the muscles that make them work. You see the soul that floats through them – the ghost in the machine – you see how much time they have left, how much you'll give them if you fix them. You see gods, spirits and ghosts. You know things about people just by looking them in the eye. Can you live with that, Collins? Are you strong enough for that?"
Hansette stared into the swirling, shallow pools of gray. She imagined seeing the things he told her of and couldn't stop a smile from creeping over her face.
"Yes," she said. "I am."
Tristao sat back and looked her over again, then slipped his dark glasses back on.
"At least you're easy on the eyes," he said.