| Part of the Angel Cycle
We walked perhaps a Block or two down the tunnels, to where the Web formed an intersection. Through gratings in the floor, I could see another Transit line passing beneath our own at a shallow angle. In the dim lighting, I could see the tops of Rings only as bars of shadow across the faded image of the tunnel base. A few status indiks winked here and there near the floor. Much of the grating was blocked with trash and detritus, just like you'd expect; paper, leaves, unidentifiable bits of wood, plastic and metal, and a general sort of soot so thick it was almost a mulch.
Mtubi moved to the side and pointed. At the point the two lines crossed, our Web tunnel expanded into a small gallery which looked like the high-arched roof of the tunnel below, if it had (rather than passing beneath) curved up meet our tunnel. This 'cross-tunnel' was walled off several meters from the Web on each side, but that was enough to provide room to stand beside the Web without feeling the involuntary itch between my shoulder blades that I had had ever since getting this close to the Rings. I supposed it was all that well-intentioned parental training - Don't Walk On The Tracks, Dear.
Now, though, with a good ten meters between us and the nearest ring, it wasn't nearly as bad. Mtubi turned to face me. I noticed that his coat seemed to have been repaired, but it was still the same one.
He followed my glance and smiled ruefully. "Yeah. I can't stand the thought of getting rid of it."
"Doesn't anyone ask why it gets so messed up?"
"Not really." Grin. "They all assume that I'm one of those rare Detective Sergeants who doesn't spend all his time behind his desk. Plus," he admitted, "I have several of them. I try not to show up at the station looking like I've rolled around on the floor too much."
"I saw that Shan and Marren wore leather jackets."
"Noticed that, did you?" His look was approving and speculative. "Yes, they do. Shan has that Godawful weight of metal on his for that specific reason. In his case, it's mostly cosmetic, since he doesn't need to stop drop and roll nearly as often as I do."
The last was said quickly, in a phrase: stop-drop-and-roll.
"Stop drop and roll? Is that when you hit the floor after a Ride?"
"Yep. Us lesser types do it however which way we can avoid breaking things. Shan...well, he's senior Rider, and he knows tricks we don't. Usually he'll show us things, but not that one. He just grins evilly. Doesn't say anything, of course, but I think he likes watching the rest of us pick ourselves up out of the dirt." Mtubi paused. "Oh, yes, and let me give you this warning now - really, really try to keep your mouth closed when you're coming off a Ride. I didn't, once, and Shan was there. He never lets me forget that. Never." He shuddered, only partly theatrically. "You can imagine what's down on that floor."
I must have turned at least a bit green, because he laughed reassuringly. "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll be fine. Now then, let's start with your eyes."
"Yes. Have to keep them protected at all times, especially when Riding."
"Shan and Marren wear those cool shades."
"Those aren't shades, really. And for the moment, so do you."
"What?" I jerked a hand up to my eyes, but nothing happened other than poking myself severely in one eye. "I don't have anything on!"
Mtubi flexed his left hand, extending his fingertips out, and twisted his wrist, spinning a huge invisible dial. There was a silent flicker behind his fingers, a whorl of not-color, and before I could finish drawing in the breath of surprise and excitement, there was a round shape (a Circle, I corrected myself) in front of his hands, floating in the air. It was silver, and as he raised his hand towards me I realized it was a mirror.
My fascination with its appearance was momentarily pushed aside, however, at the sight of my face. My face had never been something I was extraordinarily proud of; it mostly drew annoyance when relatives called me 'cute.' But then it looked different, and well it should have - there was a cold-edged arc of not-quite-mirror swallowing both my eyes, crossing the bridge of my nose as a narrow shining line, and tapering back towards my ears. I raised my hands again, and was surprised to both feel my face and see my fingers disappearing into the silver without even the ripples that would have completed the liquid illusion. "What's that?"
"Shades, dear girl." I gave him a dirty look. "Sorry. Carrie. We all wear shades, but real ones tend to fly off at bad moments. When I touched your face during the ride, I put those on you, but you'll want to put your own set on." He touched the bridge of my nose with the forefinger of his right hand and the silver vanished instantly. I blinked, but it didn't feel different.
"But I could reach through them. And I couldn't feel them stopping air."
"Yes. They only stop things that both aren't you, and are moving faster than around two meters per second. That's enough for air to move across the boundary, but not enough for anything likely to harm you. You can make them fully solid, but you need to remember to let your face 'breathe' every few hours, so most of us just leave them at that level."
"Wait." I was struggling. "How do you do all this? How am I ever going to learn to do it if I don't even know what it all is?"
"You don't have to know what it all is. In fact, none of us really do. We have some ideas, but none of us want to learn too much about the facts of it. I think we're afraid it will all go away if we explain it." He laughed again. "Stupid, I know. But there you are. Anyhow, you will, Carrie. That's why we're here. Have a seat."
I looked about, and sat on a stack of metal ingots near a wall. Mtubi remained standing in front of me, his form trailed by wisps of the colors that had permeated my vision since falling to the ground behind the Angel.
"Okay. Now, this is really hard to teach, the first bit, because there's no method or anything. You just have to do it, for yourself. Once you've done the first bit, the rest is easy to explain. But the first part is hard. The thing we have to do first, though, is find your icon."
"Find my icon." I was trying to keep up, but I think I looked a little plaintive.
"Yes. All riders have a symbol, one that reflects who they are. Mine-" he pulled open his coat, and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt before pulling the left collar aside. I stood to look. Over his heart was a shield, the infinity symbol blazoned on it, Silver and shining.
"Is that like the shades?"
"Yep. Silver. We call it Silver." He closed his coat. "Even if I haven't Ridden in...oh, a long time...that will still be there. That represents me as Guardian, and it will protect my heart (and maybe the rest of me, although I don't care to test it) even though I don't have the Dreams with me. It seems to draw energy from my body to do so, unlike the other manifestations - like the Shades - which rely on Dreams to work. The Shades are easy; you could keep those up for a year after Riding, but any other serious work will take the energy out of you, and you'll need to Ride to get it back."
I was beginning to catch on. "Okay. What's Shan's icon?"
"His are the Shades, actually. Ours aren't permanent. His are."
"You mean you never see his eyes?"
Mtubi paused, arrested. "No, actually. I hadn't thought about that. Well, that's not true, I have seen his eyes once, but that was before he had the Shades on, permanently."
"Does he ever talk?"
"No." Mtubi sat as well. "Never heard him do so, at any rate. But he doesn't really need to."
"And Marren - is she -"
Mtubi cut in. "You can ask them all this, you know. Or you can ask me, and I might tell you if it's not personal." His smile let me know it wasn't because I was a kid, or anything, but that even between...whatever we were, there were still boundaries. I thought about that, and was glad. I nodded.
"Moving on, then. We need to find your icon. You have to impress it on yourself. Once you've done that, the rest will be easier."
"How do I do that?"
"I don't know. We're going to have to figure that out. You're a bit of a special case. But for you, it should be easy. You've already done something like it once, remember?"
I thought back. "Oh! The statue!"
More laughter. "Yes. And before you ask, yes, she still flips the bird to everyone who looks closely. Most of the folks down here think that's the best thing they've seen in a while."
"Most folks? Will I get to meet them?"
"Oh, yes. But in the meantime, do you think the Statue is your icon?"
I thought about it, without knowing what I was thinking about. I pictured the Statue, finger extended, torch raised. "I...don't think so."
"Okay. Is anything coming to you?"
"What was it you called me?"
I thought again. Speaker to Angels. Listener to Angels. The not-quite-face of the capsule's bright pocket world stared implacably back at me from my mind, eyeless. I could tell it wanted to talk, and wanted to hear, but it couldn't. It could only talk a certain way, in a special voice, to special people who could hear that. Radios had that, some people couldn't hear unless they were on the right...frequency, yes. Channel. Whatever.
"So I'll be talking for the Angel? Can you all talk to each other?"
"Sometimes. It's not a given. We're hoping you will be able to let us all talk amongst ourselves more effectively."
"Sounds like you want an operator." The thought came quickly, sparked, held, and I giggled. "I know. I know!"
Mtubi looked excited, finally. "Really? What?"
"Um, but wait, does the icon always show?"
"Oh, damn." I sighed. My parents were not going to be happy. "Oh well. Here goes." I raised my right hand to my ear, and my left to my throat, and thought, as hard as I could, talk and hear. Talk and hear. Talk and hear.
Nothing happened. I opened my eyes and looked at Mtubi. He nodded. "It's okay. Keep trying. We don't know really how it's done. We just know you'll be able to do it." He sat back from me slightly, giving me space, and I returned to my silent litany, hands massaging my throat and the line of my jaw just ahead of my right ear. I knew what I wanted, but, I realized, I didn't know what it would look like. I didn't know if that was good or bad.
I wasn't getting any resonance, so I dropped my hands and just thought about the concept as hard as possible, picturing the Ride. I watched the colors flowing in my arms, in the walls, in small whirling infrared patterns in the air, and then saw the ripples. The air was shimmering, in a way I couldn't explain - waves passing through the chamber walls and air and Mtubi and myself, constantly. From all directions. I extended a hand to align it with one particularly strong pattern of ripples, flexed my fingers-
"-WWSHHHHHHHHHHHHSHHSHSHHHHSHHSHHSHHSHSHEEEEEEEE-" I jerked my hand into a fist, and the noises stopped. I must have jumped, because Mtubi's eyes narrowed slightly, but he didn't say anything. I sat and thought about that for a second. Then I flexed my hand out again, feeling for a different pattern of ripples. This time, knowing what to expect, the sound wasn't as surprising, and rather than static, a rush of music flowed into my head. I laughed, threw up my other hand, and began tasting the air with all ten fingers. I listened to voices, music, static, electronic conversations of computers, and finally-
Yes! I laughed, long, and the voice returned instantly.
welcome carrie welcome Speaker
Thank you. Thank you for everything.
gratitude superfluous query Guardian present
I was getting better at parsing its not-really-language. Yes, he's with me.
purpose of communication
Discovery. I'm trying to find my Icon.
As it spoke, I felt my hands warm, and before I could think, I had slapped them to my jaw and neck again. There was a flare of Silver, warmth in the air, and I smelled electric current. Mtubi stood, looking and waiting for the glare to die away. I removed my hands, feeling my throat and jaw tingle in a line between my Adam's apple and my inner ear, and realized I could still hear the Angel despite having moved my hands.
query Speaker query icon
I have it. Thank you. Do you need me?
negative welcome welcome-
The voice faded abruptly, the Angel going about its business, and Mtubi silently conjured the mirror, an expression of satisfaction on his face. I looked at my unchanged visage for a moment, then turned my head slightly left. A shining line ran from my right ear to my throat, with a circular Silver button in the cartilege just next to the opening of my ear and another embedded, apparently, in my throat.
The headset pulsed softly in polychrome.
Mtubi vanished the mirror and looked at me. "That looks good."
"Thanks." I smiled back. "Now about Circles?"
* * *
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