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I thumbed through an old copy of a women’s magazine while I waited for Estrella in a reorientation room that smelled faintly of incense. Was I confident with men? I would never know the answer, because on question three, Estrella entered, dusted in ash, glared at me, and walked into the bathroom.
“I knew you’d be here,” Estrella called, and started the shower before I could reply. I walked to stand outside the open doorway.
“How do you feel?”
I sat down on a couch and waited. She emerged from steam minutes later, her slight body wrapped in a heavy white cotton robe, her wet hair a beautiful copper.
“Have to look after the meal ticket, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer. She grimaced, stuck a finger in an ear and twisted it around for a second.
“How did I die?
"There was an accident after the show." I looked around the room. "There should be some footage if you want to bring up a screen."
"Or, you don't have to watch. How do you feel?"
She sighed. "Like I’m telling my body to do things, rather than just doing them."
“That’ll go away after you get some sleep.”
“It’s my first time,” Estrella said. “How am I supposed to feel?”
"You’re not supposed to feel anything.”
She rolled her eyes and put one of her little feet up on the table of aging magazines and shook her head, a tiny move in each direction.
“Have you gone through this?”
“I’ve done it three times,” I said. “The first time I was fourteen. It was weird not to have all my scars."
"How many scars did you have at fourteen?"
I tried to pickpocket my first alien after turning thirteen at the urging of an entire bench of my urchin friends. It was a straight bump-and-go on La Rambla, targeting the trailing hoof in a pack of five, but a step away I inhaled and the chlorine smell reached down my throat and twisted my lungs. I gagged, coughed, tripped, and the hoof turned its big head and took an awkward side-step.
I picked myself off the street, my elbows and the palms of my hand scraped and just starting to bleed. The hoofs had turned to stand around me, and around them, pedestrians moved past, glancing only out of the corner of their eyes as their pace quickened. The five hoofs chirped and chirped at me, and I realized after a moment that they were laughing. I’d never heard one make the sound outside of educational primers.
The one I’d tried to bump made an imitation of a grin at me, his face turning all sharp teeth. Long dormant parts of my brain came awake screaming for me to run, play dead, or crap myself so I’d become less appetizing.
I looked around quickly for my friends and saw only empty bench.
They tousled my hair, dislocated my shoulder with a friendly punch, chirped at my tears of pain, and all keeping the same grin that put my hair on end. I kept nodding and trying to edge away, but they pulled me back in, posing for holos as I shook with anger and fear.
When they decided to leave, the one I’d targeted stayed back and pressed a chit into my cold, sweaty palm with both of his rough, three-fingered hands, then smiled again and trotted away to catch up with his pack.
The tears came suddenly and I dropped onto the curb, unable to catch my breath or stop sobbing. The crowd walked around me. I walked to a clinic where a nurse bot sealed the cuts, sprayed foam on the whole thing, popped my shoulder back in, and gave me a ration of pain pills for when the anesthetics wore off.
When I got home, my mother didn’t notice, goggled in and murmuring softly to her clan. Exhausted, numbed, I fell asleep on contact with the bed.
I woke up with a new set of faint scars across my elbows and forearms from the scrape, a particularly stale odor of sweat and the clinic, and the chit still in my hand. The chit contained a long, encrypted string that unraveled into cash.
I thought of the hoof, and his forced grin, and the rough feel of his hands as he’d pressed the chit into mine. I walked out of my room, back down to La Rambla, nearly empty in the morning, and found a pack out foraging for breakfast, or late returning from some marathon dinner, and did a perfect bump-and-go, snagging a tiny camera.
My fence frowned at it, made excuses, I made counters and threats. The final price was far less than the money pressed into my hand.
I called a cab and took Estrella back to her apartment at Casa Mila.
"Do you want me to walk you up?"
"Will my apartment recognize me in a new body?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Oh, I understand,” she said. “You want me to invite you up." She paused. “No.”
"I just want to make sure you're okay."
"You're awfully caring today. It makes you look old."
"I'm sorry. Mature?" she looked to me, eyebrows raised, waiting for an answer.
"I’ll take that."
"Thank you for coming to see me," Estrella said. "I know you didn't do it for the money. I’m sorry I said that."
"I'll come by tomorrow and check on you."
"You don't have to do that," she said. "But thank you. That would be nice. Don't come by too early."
I brought food over Sunday morning. I wanted to cook, for one, and I wanted to hang out in Estrella’s beautiful apartment, for two. I found a skillet and made a quick omlette as she watched the street below.
"How did my show go?" Estrella asked me when I set down my food.
"You were amazing," I said. “The hoofs thought it was the best show ever.”
Her face broke into a relieved grin, and she leaned forward, exhaling. "I was worried.”
"You were what?"
“The last thing I remember was backing up the week before. But I know there was a performance between then and now, and knowing that the show went off well makes me proud of myself. Is that weird?"
"Not at all," I said.
“What else happened?”
I caught myself starting to answer and shoved a piece of omlette into my mouth.
“Oh this has got to be good,” she said, her eyes big and curious, baring the points of her canines a little and leaning forward.
“You’re such a sleaze,” she said. She sat back in her chair, looked at the ceiling. “I can’t believe you’re trying to exploit me like this. No, wait, I can. Sick. You’re disgusting.”
“I knew this would be awkward,” I said. “It’s why I didn’t say anything.”
“It would explain why you’re hovering around.”
She sighed to herself. “Do you have any proof?”
“You want proof?”
“I want proof,” she said.
“What kind of proof do you want?”
“Pictures. Recent pictures. Timestamped. Ideally, with the two of us holding up a copy of a tabloid or something else published in the last week.”
“You weren’t my hostage!”
I got up. “Enjoy your breakfast. I have to go raise the ticket prices again.”
“What are you charging now?”
“It’s so much it’s sleazy and exploitive,” I said. “Sick and disgusting.”
I watched the hoofs file out after a show and tried to gauge their reaction, which I did after every show, as if one night I would be the guy to make the language breakthrough. “Did you like the show?” I asked as they walked by. “I hope you enjoyed the show. Did you have a good time?”
One stopped. “No,” his translator box said. The hoof walked on.
Enrico elbowed me in the side. “Never seen that happen before.”
“No,” I said.
“I think that’s a really bad sign,” he said. “I told you they wouldn’t like classical music.”
“It seemed like a good idea. Their whole society is complicated, they’ve got a hundred contradictory allegiances nobody understands, I thought they’d enjoy some Bach.”
“It’s some boring shit,” Enrico said.
“Maybe I should hand out programs, explain it to them.”
“Fuck that. They don’t want classical, they want an authentic Earth experience.”
“The fuck is that, exactly?”
“They want to hear something unlike themselves. You have to go in the other direction.”
“I’m not convinced. I’m going to go ahead and try opera,” I said.
“When you get trampled to death in the stampede for the exits, I’m going to wait at the vats and when you step out I’m going to tell you I told you so.”
“I’ll look forward to it.”
“What you should do is flaminco. It’s Spanish, they seemed to like the guitar stuff we did. Come on, I’ve got a show for you.”
I knew I would hire her before I was even admitted to the show, the song carrying out the club and into the street. It sounded like she was singing in a cathedral, her voice low and heavy like someone had cranked the reverb way and bass way up on her amp, but when I saw her on stage she wasn’t miced. The spotlights on her reflected off her bright, bright red hair, tinting the whole room as if by firelight. She didn’t even seem to be trying.
She threw her hand up in one of the fixed flamenco gestures, her face stern for the pose, and then cracked a smile. The cramped crowd clapped, whistled, yelled.
“Close your mouth,” Enrico said. He reached over to push my chin up.
“Where did she come from?”
“Argentina, of all places,” Enrico said.
“Thank you,” Estrella said softly from the stage. “I’ve missed Catalonia.”
The crowd cheered.
“I have one more song.”
It was the first time I had ever feared that a performer would truly bring the house down, that the force of her performance, her voice alone, would crack the walls, break the beams, shatter the foundation, and the place would collapse on us. But I didn’t break and run for safety. Listening to Estrella, packed shoulder to shoulder in the tiny club, I wanted to die with them in the catastrophe of collapse, because she made me realize my life was meaningless and death would be a welcome release.
Flamenco singers use a Gypsy howl to force emotion on the audience: anger, longing, mourning, regret, even joy. I’d always found it manipulative, maudlin, and cheap. It leaves the listener hollow and embarrassed for being such easy prey. Estrella made me remember all of the passion, rage, even grace balled up, buried, forgotten. I clapped until my hands were raw.
After the show, she came out to the bar, which was the first time I realized there had been other people on stage with her: the guitarist and a male singer.
“I need you to come sing at our theater,” I said.
“No,” Estrella said.
“I can offer you a lot more money.”
“I’m stage manager at the ETSR,” I said. “It’s a whole new audience that’s never seen you, never seen flaminco.” I paused. “Well, probably they’ve seen fake flaminco, but not like you.”
“You put on shows for hoofs?”
“Yeah, we’re the only all-hoof theater in Barcelona. We get great crowds, and the pay is amazing. You could become a hoof sensation, even get a chance to go off-world.”
She shook her head, motioned to someone for a drink.
“It’s the chance to perform for an entirely new audience.”
She rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Why bother?” she asked.
“Why do you sing now?”
Estrella’s drink was clear, on ice. She sipped at it and looked me over. “You’re a stupid thug and I’m tired of talking to you.” She walked away with her drink.
“I’m not stupid,” I said to no one, a minute later.
Weeks later, Estrella showed up uninvited during someone else’s sound check. She refused to sit on one of the pads, standing halfway back, eyes closed, as the band went through two songs.
“You did an amazing job on the restoration,” she said. “I remember coming here years ago, it had a real harsh sound.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Book us a night,” she said. “I’m curious.”
“I wish I’d never showed up,” Estrella said, pointing an accusatory fork at me across the table, smiling.
“You don’t mean that.”
“I do,” she said, spearing a piece of omelet.
I met Estrella for dinner before meeting the rest of the theater crew for a show. The streets were thick with barricades, check-points, Communist police units firing blanks from authentic machine guns off the roofs of buildings and church towers, arresting or shooting members of other communist organizations, and the anarchists running from cover to cover, as the hoofs clapped and approached particularly authentic barricades to pay voluntary tolls.
POUM controlled Casa Mila when I got there, and George Orwell waved me into the building.
“Nice to see you,” I said. “The control patrols are a few minutes behind me. You should get to the roof.”
He nodded. Down the street, something exploded, and we both turned to see a cloud of dust choking the street, people running. “Shit,” George Orwell said. “You weren’t kidding.”
“Where can we have dinner in peace,” Estrella asked me. “The park?” She winced at a rifle shot and then shot a glare at the rooftop.
“It’s worse towards the park,” I said. “I think it’s clear a couple blocks up.”
“I hope it’s soundproofed. And has good wine.”
A pack of hoofs stopped her as we walked.
“Are you Estrella?” one asked.
“Yes,” Estrella said.
“We are coming to see you sing Saturday,” it said.
“Our pack friends saw you last week. They couldn’t stop talking about you.”
“Thank you.” Estrella started to make an excuse to leave, but the box went first.
“We love Spain,” it said. “This is such an authentic experience! We were mugged yesterday!”
“I invented that,” I said.
“Can we ask you, all of the stories, this fighting, is it true?”
“Yes,” Estrella said. “Spain and especially Catalonia have rich histories. I’m glad to hear you appreciate it, but—“
“Yes, so wonderful,” the box said. Other hoofs talked back and forth, teeth clattering, but no translation came. “We are tracing the civil war,” the lead hoof’s box droned. “So interesting! Were there really anarchists?”
“Yes,” Estrella said.
“An organized movement opposed to organization!” the box did a jump in volume to convey excitement. The pack chirped. I remembered the first time they laughed at me, the pathetic would-be mugger. Look at his hair, chirp chirp chirp.
“And the anarchists – they fought with communists?” all but one looked to us, the other scanning the opposite direction for threats.
Chirp chirp chirp.
“And today, the communists are also fighting the communists,” I said, and offered a smile.
Chirp chirp chirp.
“Are you an anarchist?”
“I am,” Estrella said. “My first bombing is tonight, I’m very excited. I’m going to attack a pack. Not yours, of course.”
They shuddered in excitement. “This is amazing. We wish to see an authentic anarchist bombing. Please, can you share the location of your bombing?”
“That wouldn’t be very realistic of me, would it?” Estrella asked. “Now please excuse us, we have to go cook up our bomb.”
“Thank you for talking to us,” the hoof said. The pack looked to her and showed us all their teeth at once, and I felt the old fear tingling across my arms. Estrella waved and we walked away.
“That was cruel,” I said. “They’re going to walk around all night hoping they’re killed by a blast.”
“Authentic anarchist disappointment,” she said. “I got used to it a long time ago.
The acoustics rang badly in our mid-week sound check, Estrella’s first time back singing at the theater. Sound check acoustics are always a little goofy, because there’s no audience, but it was unusually awful. Estrella voice sounded hollow, the guitar tiny. Estrella stared at Enrico on the soundboard, and me, standing next to the soundboard.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Enrico said. “Everything looks okay.”
“I wonder if it’s this dry air,” I said. “It’s been sixteen and clear all day. With the sun coming down...”
“That’s a horrible theory,” Enrico said.
“Turn off the board,” I said. I walked up to the stage. “We’re going to look at the amps. Can you do a song without the mics?”
Estrella did a huge stage sigh, rolling her eyes at the inconvenience, the frills on her costume quivering. “Of course we can.”
I walked back to the sound board. The musicians looked at me, and I gave a nod to start. They sounded terrible.
“It’s not the amps,” I said.
“You are as skilled at listening as you are at meteorology,” Enrico said.
Estrella started, stopped, waved the others still.
“It’s not the amps,” she yelled.
“Thank you!” I yelled back.
“It’s nice to see you two fighting again,” Enrico said. “It’s a poor substitute for fighting with Estrella myself, but it serves.”
“Fuck it,” Estrella sang. “Fuck the hoofs. They won’t know the difference anyway. I’m going drinking.” She walked off the stage.
“I want to ask you about something,” Estrella said, looking at her wine.
“You usually just ask.”
“You don’t have to answer this one.”
“Is this going to be a sex question?” I said. “Because I’ll probably say yes. I’ll at least be receptive.”
“No, no,” she said, and blushed. She looked up from her wine to meet my eyes. “When you met me at... when I came out, you said you’d been revived three times. How did you die?”
The footage of the accident that killed me at fourteen is boring. Taken from the crosswalk camera, I’m on the curb, looking, looking, looking, and then you see a giant black shape and there’s a smear where I was standing on the sidewalk. Slowing the playback, you can see the truck, and there’s one frame where it looks like I’ve spotted something out of the corner of my eye and started to turn my head.
The other two times there is no footage.
I was running my own gang, recruiting from the kids not cool enough to run with the old crew. It worked well, because they were even smaller, malnourished, and dirty than me, so when I ran the pathetic, wide-eyed scamps to botch bump-and-runs they were even more incompetently charming, attracted even more hoof pity.
Then I piled on the wrinkles: I played the sick brother, who required gene therapy. Younger kids played his starving siblings, tragically forced out on the street with him. An older kid played the cop, ready to prosecute unless a stiff fine could be paid by someone, anyone. I dusted off ridiculous old con games to play on them: the Wire, the Happy Birthday, the Big Al, and even when one of my players blew it the hoofs would play along, delighted they were having such an authentic Earth experience.
All of this required that I pay protection, and I paid a lot more on top of that to make sure we were the only ones in Barcelona running this scam. Those negotiations sometimes didn’t go well, and when the police want to make a point about your bargaining position, you walk into the re-orientation room and the only information available is the unlikely location your body turned up in.
After it happened twice, I submitted. I offered the part of the angry but bribable police officer to angry but bribable police officers. I stopped having to wake up with a bored technician asking me how many fingers they were holding up. The police used their new role to get identity information on the hoofs they could sell to people who would drain their vacation accounts. I wished I had thought of it.
“I understand why you missed your scars,” a naked, content Estrella said, tracing the outline of a fingernail scratch across my chest.
Estrella believed she was a wild, unrestrained lover, the envy of all, but sex with Estrella was like petting a bipolar kitten. She was warm, soft, affectionate, happy, shy to request even that I smooth her hair, and then all biting and scratching, angry demands, hissing and cursing at me.
“Why do they take them from us?”
“It’s not supposed to be there,” I said. “It’s a bad patch, it doesn’t work as well as what’s supposed to be there. And look, you don’t come back with your tattoos, either.”
“I understand that.”
“It’s the same thing.”
She made a small huff of dismissal. “I can’t remember if I had scars on my hands,” she said, taking my hand in hers and turning them in the light.
“Are you going to go see the Oracle tomorrow?” Estrella asked.
“I have a ten o’clock appointment.”
“Can I come?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s usually very boring.”
“What happens when my voice goes?” Estrella asked me, outside the office. I looked at my watch. “What happens when they get tired of Spain, and Franco?”
“Even if your voice goes, you’ll still be able to perform if you want,” I said. “And I’ve given this some thought – I think it’ll be China. They’re going to go crazy when they discover the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
“No,” Estrella said. “I think part of what attracts them isn’t how strange the two sides were, it’s the atrocities on both sides, and after we start reenacting forcing people to jump off bridges for them, they’re going to look for something even more brutal and horrible.”
“That’s a nice thought. China has atrocities. It’s one-stop shopping for their historical cravings. Can we go inside?”
“I’m trying to get psyched up,” Estrella said. “I’m ready.”
On the other side of a desk, the Oracle sat on his pad, hands over hatchet-head keyboard, unsmiling. There were chairs for us. The heavy fans blanketed the room in white noise.
The hoof looked at me, at Estrella, at me, and shifted on his pad. I’d never seen that before. Was he a fan? Did Estrella intimidate him? Was she attractive, or repulsive to him? I decided to bring her along more in the future.
“We want desaliniaztion 4-20,” Estrella said. He spoke softly, and his translator agent quoted a price.
“That’s too high,” Estrella said. “This isn’t disruptive. It keeps people from fighting over fresh water.”
He quoted a slightly lower price.
“No,” Estrella said. “We can’t afford that. Desalination 4 through 20. Irrigation would make for stable agriculture in many traditionally war-torn areas.”
He didn’t even type, just quoted the same price.
“There must be a dual use for the technology,” I said. “Something they’re afraid of.”
“I don’t fucking care,” Estrella said. “If we can’t buy things that help people, what’s the point in performing?”
His eyes came fully forward to focus on her. Estrella glared back. He murmured.
“We have a special on Transmission 12,” the agent said. He quoted a ridiculously low price. “One week only.”
I looked the tech up. It was a set of specs for antennas of significantly improved efficiency.
“Can you offer advice?” Estrella asked.
The hoof nodded.
“You can tell me how best to get to an expressed goal?”
The hoof nodded again.
“I really want Transmission 12 at this price,” I said. “My tech guy thinks this could make everything a little better. Everything helps a lot of people, means a lot of money to save lives. And this price is crazy. It’s almost free.”
“How do I get you fuckers to leave us alone?”
The hoof started, a whole-body twitch reaction almost pushing him to stand. He settled back down,
“The store is closed for the day,” the toneless agent on the desk said. “Good bye.”
Estrella smiled her thinnest smile. “Fuck you too,” she replied, and left.
“I’m very sorry,” I said. “I’ll come by tomorrow morning.”
The hoof made no reaction at all. I chased after Estrella. She was outside the building, punching the brick wall with her hand over and over.
“I hate this,” she said. “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. How many people died just now because I couldn’t control my temper?”
“I’ll fix it,” I said. “Don’t worry.” I took her hand to stop her. Her knuckles were badly scraped and starting to bleed. “Let’s get you bandaged. You’re going to have some gruesome scars when this heels.”
“Good,” Estrella said. “I never got an appointment notice. Did you?”
“Monday,” I said.
She sighed. “Too bad, it’s been a weird week. Fuck it, let’s go out and get some wine.”
I held Estrella back by the wrist as she screamed at the soldiers, twisting her arm, straining to break free and charge them. The broken Republican army looked at their frayed boots as they walked on, carrying replica muskets, AK-47s, mismatching their cheap imitation uniforms. Her voice was louder than the sound of their march, traffic, and the rest of Barcelona. They flinched with each word.
“You fuckers!” Estrella screamed. “The 26th of January was the death of Barcelona! The death of Spain!”
“Come on, there’s no point,” I said.
“You’re selling tragedy!” she yelled in the ear of the nearest soldier. “You’re selling our souls!”
He stopped, looked at her. He smiled, cracking the fake dirt smeared across his cheeks.
“Oh, Estrella,” he said. “To hear you say that, of all the people in the world.”
She raked his face with her free hand, scratching him badly.
“Look,” he said, “now I’m authentic.”
“Get out of here!” I yelled at him. He looked at Estrella and rejoined his unit, on their way to surrender to their weekly surrender to the fascists. Estrella screamed incoherently at his retreat.
“Save your voice,” I said softly, hugging her back from charging the street. “Save your voice.”
I watched from the soundboard. There’s a break before she sings “The Night” where she runs backstage to change. We fill with a two minute song by the guitarist.
Estrella walked back on stage and every time I’ve ever heard her sing “The Night”, the first note cuts into me. The song mourns her dead lover, but it’s about her now-meaningless life, and her struggle to go on.
At the end of the song, Estrella pushed herself as far as she could, as loud, as high, and the whole hall sings with her anguish.
Then silver flashed in her off hand, the note turned into rage and she burned, a wash of light blue and then her whole outfit caught, the bright red and orange and smoke obscuring her, and the walls screamed too, and stopped. Estrella dropped to the stage, dead, smoking, silent.
The hoofs stood and tromped their feet in rolling, thunderous applause. My ears hurt, the hall trembled. The applause went on and on. I turned and walked from the theater. The glasses behind the bar rattled angrily as the lobby shook. I walked out to the street and hailed a cab.
"The vats," I said.
They let me in to wait for Estrella in a re-orientation room. It smelled faintly of orange peels. I sat down and picked up an old magazine featuring the top ten luxury vacation destinations.
Estrella entered, saw me, and stopped immediately, ashes sluffing off into the scented air.
"Well of course you’d be here," she said, and rolled her eyes. "Checking up on your investment?"
"You're not an investment, Estrella."
Estrella pursed her lips and shook her head, then went into the bathroom and turned the shower on.
"What happened?" she asked when she stepped out, her slight body wrapped in a heavy white cotton robe. She laid down across the couch. Her hair, wet, splayed out in a beautiful fan of copper.
"There was an accident after the show." I looked around the room. "There should be some footage available if you want to bring up a screen."
She flicked her hand twice at the wrist as if the idea were a horsefly.
"You don't have to watch if you don't want to. How do you feel?”
She sighed. "Like a newborn deer. I've never been through this before. Should I feel different?"
"The first time I did it I was fourteen," I said. "It was weird not to have all my scars."
"How many scars did you have at fourteen?" she asked.