Sometimes you wait a long time, at a ’Chute. The network’s busy all over: at any node people are always arriving, leaving, passing through. And whatever the pressure, they can still only process one discard at a time, coming or going. You get delays. Everywhere, you get delays.
Not at NeoPenthe, when you’re going up the line to Rotten Row. They hustled me through the concourse as though I were political, as though the taint of my ambition might rub off if they let me linger.
Actually, if they’d let me linger, I might have changed my mind. I’d come a long way to do this, but even so: I hadn’t been this nervous since my first fling. I was born downside, pretty much in the shadow of our system’s only ’Chute; all my childhood, all my teenage it had hung above me, baleful and threatening. Those who used it, the Upshot I met—no, the Upshot I saw, in the streets and bars and sports halls, otherwhere; we didn’t mix, or meet—were all strangers, flung in from far planets or orbitals or places more alien yet. We were downside, stubborn about it, rooted. A man’s place was something that mattered, his connection with the land and sky and weather. His body, that was something that mattered more. His mother who birthed him, what was she to think if she saw him shrug it aside and flick away, a stream of encoded data, gone for good? How was she to mourn, unable even to reclaim that body that she made and he abandoned, knowing that it would be compacted like a defunct motor, crushed to an ominous disk and filed for reference, evidential, date-stamped and trackable…?
No, we were downside and we kept our distance from the ’Chute. Turned out I couldn’t be my father’s good farmboy, though, eyes to the soil and hand to the plough. Something intangible made an artist of me, and there wasn’t space anywhere downside to make me the artist I wanted to be. In the end, I took the walk to the terminal; I took the fling in the ’Chute. I had myself Upshot, and it was the most frightening thing I’d ever done. As it ought to be.
And it still is, yes, but this came close. I knew what happened at either end of a regular fling I had no idea what to expect at the other end of this. The first time it had been utterly new and terrifying to the raw adolescent, that I was; then it became rapidly mundane; now it was unknown again, a broken promise, a door into darkness.
Leaving NeoPenthe was unexceptional. Smooth plass underfoot, rising seamlessly into walls and ceiling; doors that slid open and the sudden rush of height, the loss of all perspective as I stepped through. The ’Chute like a vast lily-flower all around me, with a sourceless light and a distant hint of something that isn’t sky, too far above; the chamber ahead, like a solitary stamen waiting. And my stepping in, lying down as it were in a sepulchre, on a bier.
Then the briefest blink in the world, and the confusion afterwards. You always think something’s gone wrong, the Upchute’s offline and the fling is delayed. The pod peels open and you step out into that same space, it seems, the almost-closed trumpet of the lily ’Chute; and the door slides back and it looks pretty similar out there too, though the plass is maybe a different shade of neutral and there’s probably the name of the station in big letters to tell you where you are, but it doesn’t matter actually because by then you’ve noticed that the body you’re walking out with is not the body you walked in with.
You look down and you’re six inches different in height, perhaps, and this time perhaps you have a penis when you might have had breasts before. Or else they’re not the same breasts, they’re heavier and your hips are broader; and you can’t rely on your body to find its own balance because it’s fresh, unworn, it’s never done this yet. But there are people on hand to steer you to a sideroom, to clothes that fit perfectly because of course they knew all the dimensions of this neutral-smelling discard just decanted from the growing vats. Dressing is difficult, with fingers and fashions both unfamiliar, but willing hands will help; and there’s a mall nearby where you can shop for what will suit you better, your sense of self if not your sudden colouring. There’s a gym where you can exercise this body and get it used to moving, get it used to you. There’s a universal chapel, should you need to pray or bless yourself. As a community, the Upshot don’t tend towards religion—it’s reckoned hard to believe in a creator-god when your every body is created for you and worn like clothes and discarded like clothes when you’re done with it, left behind for filing—but we are by definition a community of exceptions, the ones who walked away. Those who do cling to faith reckon that what we do is almost prayerful in itself, that flinging our selves from one body to the next is absolute proof that the human soul exists in separation from any corporeal function.
Praying or shopping or working out, all the time you’re meeting other people. Little is automated and nothing is private; you pick up customs, styles, news. However alien the world beyond the terminal—if there is one, if this isn’t an orbital station—and however far you’ve come, the Upshot are as determinedly uniform as the ’Chutes themselves. You left a world of human-normal, and you come into just such another. Every discard is generated from unmodified human code, random but utterly reliable, no sports or freaks or alterations.
And then there’s Rotten Row.
Chaz Brenchley has been making a living as a writer since the age of eighteen. He is the author of nine thrillers, most recently Shelter, and two fantasy series, The Books of Outremer and Selling Water by the River. As Daniel Fox, he has published a Chinese-based fantasy series, beginning with Dragon in Chains; as Ben Macallan, an urban fantasy series beginning with Desdaemona. A British Fantasy Award winner, he has published books for children and more than 500 short stories. Chaz has recently married and moved from Newcastle to California, with two squabbling cats and a famous teddy bear.