“Excuse me, Miss, are you all right?”
Neethan had been intrigued by the woman since she came in earlier that evening. You didn’t see many people wearing real clothes these days, even in Antara Station: the last surviving moon-base. The diners sitting at the faux-wood tables might have looked as if they were wearing the finest black-tie evening wear, but the wealthy didn’t have as much as they appeared to possess at first glance. Their fine clothes were holographs, mostly softlight. Some might be the costlier hardlight, but you had to be bigly in the sheckles to afford that, and only a few were, despite the image they projected to the Crawlers on Earth.
Underneath the holographs, the diners wore standard fibre-suits, or fibes – the same as those shipped down to the Crawl, only cleaner and newer. Women usually wore fibes tinted with lighter pastel colours, whereas the men accepted the standard dirt-brown and shit-grey variety. This woman though, she was wearing Real. How could that be possible?
Neethan had a little Real of his own. It was a small, trimmed square of genuine jean fabric in a hermetically sealed jar. He’d saved the equivalent of a month’s shares to purchase it. The woman’s red silk dress was long enough to sweep the floor. Part of him screamed at the sight of the hem touching the dirty surface. She was letting it get soiled, ruined … desecrated.
How could someone be so careless? How could someone be so rich?
He’d never seen her before, despite everyone who had sheckles coming here to watch the Earthside rise each day. The more he looked her way as he did the rounds – taking orders, serving digitised drinks – the more her presence felt wrong to him, like error in a datafeed, or honesty in FakeNews.
She was beautiful: statuesque rather than slender, with platinum blonde hair that uncoiled, python-like, over her shoulder. Her eyes were cobalt neon chips, and her lips were red as real life. There was a colour and vibrancy about her that made Neethan’s skin pebble with sweat. Too real to be real. Unlike the faces around him, a grey paleness came from living in the station: eyes dull and underscored with insomnia shadows, hair hanging in lank, greasy strips, skin marked by acne scars, premature lines, and malnutrition. None of these symptoms afflicted the woman at the corner table.
She’s not like the rest of us – how?
Neethan felt the urge to ask her who she was, to tear that red dress off her and fuck her on all fours until he felt as alive as she appeared, or to run away right now and get as far away from her presence as possible.
But it was his job to take her order, and he didn’t want to be zeroed and sent down to the Crawl. Running away was not an option. Unconsciously brushing his hair into place, Neethan approached the table and touched the nodule of flesh under his left ear. His soulwire would transmit the woman’s order straight to one of the cook-pods.
He stood at the table for a minute, patiently waiting, before realising that although the woman was holding the menu, she wasn’t reading. She was muttering something unintelligible under her breath.
“Can I take your order, please?”
Her head snapped around, and she looked up at him. No emotion was evident in her features; her face a perfect mask. The fleshy left corner of her bottom lip twitched a little.
“Excuse me, Miss…” He didn’t know what else to say, other than, “Are you all right?”
Her head shook back and forth.
“I’m sorry to hear that. May I get you some refreshment to help … ?”
The flesh around her eyes was coming loose, sagging off the bone like perished rubber, revealing glistening threads of musculature beneath.
The woman’s mouth fell open and he saw raw emptiness inside – a hissing, black, electric void. It spoke to him, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round. The wheels on the bus go round and round, all day long.”
As the void spoke, the woman’s head wagged violently from side to side in time with the rhythm of the words, as if she were a marionette with a broken neck, being jerked around by a cruel master.
“Can I help you?” the words exited his mouth slowly. They tasted mechanical, pointless, and not like him at all. It felt like someone – something – else was speaking through him. He didn’t know the woman, and her words were superficially harmless, but he felt the need to put his hand over her mouth, to stop her from saying more.
“… round and round … round and round …”
Neethan turned his head, slowly, all too slow, to see the other diners trembling and transfixed, staring into space as if they’d been switched off internally.
This must be a nightmare. This must be a dream. I’ll wake up in my module soon. I hope.
His hand was almost where it needed to be – over the woman’s gaping mouth – when the void inside her spoke again. Neethan felt the truth of her words resonate in his bones.
“… the wheels on the bus go round and round, all day long …”
Neethan was no longer moving, or standing, instead he was on the floor, spasming violently. The words cut through him, scraping away his flesh and laying open the marrow of his bones. His eyes burst and ran down his face in liquid streams. Something hot and thick as glue poured from his nose: a flux of blood and liquefied brains. He couldn’t scream, because his vocal cords were burnt cartilage-wires, and – before his ear drums dissolved completely – he heard his mouth moving relentlessly, miming the words of the void.
“… the wheels on the bus go round and round all day long …”
And then … nothing. Everything switched off like a dead television channel.