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1.  Portobello


He doesn't wait.  He takes off through the stalls and antique shops,
running hard without his shoes, skidding on the ice.  A London winter
is like a Boston winter, really.  It's just the smog that smells
different, and the different whiff of bodies at the city's edge.

Two Ubers turn toward him, and he doesn't wait to see whether they're
looking for him or for nineteenth century German furniture.  There's a
fashion for it, an industry unto itself, and he just knows there are
humans somewhere whose job it is to strip all those desks down and
refinish them in something stronger than the original wood.  Chemicals
that eat your skin.  He can picture the scars.

The London Guide soft behind his ear whispers architectural history
and describes every piece of junk Harper's eyes focus on for more than
half a second.  When he gets sick of the noise, he lets his eyes blur
across everything that's not alive.  Just now and then, he slips and
skids and while he's getting his feet back and grounding himself, the
London Guide tells him about jewellery and books and the Blitz and
strange, strange movies.  Eventually, it understands that he doesn't
care and starts singing, softly.  More lists, but tuneful and weird.  
Harper thinks someday he'll learn to fake that accent.

A foot slams into his midsection and sends him skidding over the ice.  
Cobblestones underneath make hash of his palms.  The London Guide
knocks loose from his port and shuts up.  The new focus he gains with
the voice gone makes him dizzy.

And then he's on his back.  Shaking and pretending not to.  Whispering
the song the Guide taught him.  *Street where the riches of ages are
sold...*  The gun points close at his face.

The ground settles back under his feet when the big, braided Uber puts
him onto it with just one hand on his arm.  Stands there in his
leather and chainmail like he isn't freezing cold.  Harper rubs his
head and under the gesture pushes the London Guide back into his
port.

It says, "The Smoke..."

Rebecca Valentine steps around the Uber.  She looks Harper over, then
opens her phone and says, "I've found him."  Closes it.  Harper can
see his reflection in the lenses that rise out of her skin to cover
her eyes.

She says, "Dylan wants to talk to you."

*

2. A Promise from a Man Who Sheds His Skin


He didn't expect it to be like this.

He's nearly been eaten by space monsters and Magog larvae.  Most of
his life's been spent cultivating an aura of "probably poisonous,
certainly bad for the digestive system."  He smells funny for a
reason.

It's got his feet.

He knows songs about this, even.  Stuff one of his cousins taught him,
some afternoon in the smoggy ditches of Boston.  It came up after "A
Boy Named Sue."  Just about nonsense, not quite.  The biggest snakes
he's ever seen were the garters they caught between the stones and
cooked.  Long, thin strips of meat that were the only protein he had
for the first three or four years of his life.

It's probably karma.

It's got his legs.

If he could unhinge his jaw like that, he could take the arm off the
next great big ugly who grabs him.

It's got his waist.  And his super-special Harper parts.

At least it's Dylan's fault.  'Play the host, Harper.'  'It's not
taking up much room, Harper.'  'What's it going to do, Harper, eat
your toolbox?'

Yeah, it's hilarious.

It's up to his chest.  He thinks about spreading his arms wider just
to see how far open that unhinged jaw will go.

He yells one more time.  Nobody answers.  All of them at the reception
that he wasn't invited to, just because he got the Perseid delegate
drunk last time.  Rommie's running a virus scan.  Tyr's nine decks
away.

In space, no one can hear you scream even if you spend a lot of time
maintaining an atmosphere for the sole purpose of being heard.

It's up to his neck, and he really is impressed at how wide those jaws
could stretch.

Sometime after it's up past his head, he stops screaming.  He has
*tools*.  He has a *nanowelder.*

Inside the boa constrictor, Harper thinks about all the amazing things
he can do next.

*

3.  Dingoes


He doesn't think about it that much at the time.  The bar's dark, with
a live band and some kind of beer that's mostly caffeine.  Harper's in
heaven, probably, or he would be if just a few lovelies weren't
turning him down.

The band distracts him, eventually.  They're not that good, but the
boy on lead guitar has a serious focus that Harper appreciates.  Their
music's a rough mix of old Earth fragments, covers of songs whose
originals are long lost, and vaguely post-neo-punk howling.  The lead
singer's wearing layers of eye makeup and twisting himself at the
stand-up microphone.  It's interestingly retro in a way that Harper
appreciates.

Beka's in here somewhere, probably.  After the show, she'll track down
whoever's in charge of the band's music archive and offer to trade
copies.  The collection she has now isn't even one percent of what she
had when Haper met her, but she's made rebuilding it a fun project.  
One of these days Harper'll find Rafe and cut the missing music out of
his skin.

He doesn't look for her, though, because in the break between sets he
finds the guitarist.  As small as he is, slight and serious-looking.  
Red tips on his blond hair that probably weren't created by nanobots.  
He's wrapped in a couple of layers of band shirts and shredded denim.  
Like any earther Harper's ever met, but younger, cleaner, and
infinitely less scarred.

The flat-affect shouldn't be the kind of turn-on that it is.  But.  
The boy's concentration is amazing.  They curl up together in back
booth, not listening to the band play bass-and-drums.  Kissing deep
and serious while Harper's body makes a loud case in his backbrain for
finding out if the boy's focus lasts all the way through sex, or
whether Harper could crack him.  Whether he should find out right
here.

It's not even hard for him to sink his hand into the boy's jeans.  
Jerking him off is a sweet, fast process that winds the boy up in
tight knots and gives Harper all the thrill of a gorgeous blond
twisting across his lap.  Only, just when he comes, the boy curls in
against Harper's neck, burrows his face in, and bites his shoulder.  
Bright, sharp little teeth that break the skin just where his collar
normally sits.

"Ow."

"Oh my god.  I'm sorry."  The boy scrambles off and backs away,
rubbing frantically at his bloody mouth.  "I'm sorry.  I wasn't
thinking."

"Hey, it's okay.  I'll take it as a compliment.  Just, you know, come
back here, okay?  I don't think we were done."

"I should go."

"The damage is done, okay?  Make it up to me."

He does.  Then and later, in the band's little wreck of a ship, lined
with blankets and glimmering clothes and a warm, sweet smell of
narcotics.  There's a mandala sketched on one wall and a big box of
what turns out to be actual print books, breaking back down to
cellulose but being thoroughly loved before they go.

Harper wakes up and the boy's crouched in the corner, watching him.  
Impossibly sad.  "I'm so, so sorry."

"What about?"

"Biting you.  I shouldn't ever --"

"Forget it."

"You won't."

Harper shrugs.  He's found most of his clothes, though he isn't
totally sure the shirt he's pulled on was his originally.  Part of the
natural cycle of clothing in the universe.  Andromeda has all his
faith, and anything he's picked up, Trance can fix.  He's sure of it.

He's not so sure of it a month later, howling at Tyr from a corner of
his machine shop, able to smell him just *way* too clearly.  At this
stage he can't even remember what made him angry.  But he's really,
really not human anymore, and it's scaring the shit out of him, and
everything smells like *blood* and *mate* and *food*, and then he's
unconscious.

It takes them three months to get back to the drift.  Rommie looks
bemused whenever she sees him.  Trance said something that sounded
unpleasantly like, "It's for the best."  He's learned to hunt small
rodents in the empty decks of the ship.

The band's back there, too.  Some kind of universal synchronicity.  
Harper wonders whether he should have taken some kind of warning from
the band name, wild dogs and fresh-meat children.

The boy's curled up in a corner of the empty bar, like he's been
waiting.  He takes Harper on three jumps, and then down to a dark,
forested planet.  The air smells like warm animals and cold water.  
There are two small, low moons.

They run for a long time.

*

4.  Vortex


The AP tanks develop microfractures two jumps out from Infinity Atoll.  
Any number of people declare that this is Harper's fault, since he was
the one who made the side trip.  Rommie calls him names in Perseid
while he crawls through access tunnels with his welder and a radiation
jacket pulled low over his hips.

He's not really prepared for the hole that opens in front of him.  
Hoone would have appreciated it.  It's a perfect, natural tesseract,
already closing.

In it, Harper clearly sees every sock he's ever lost.  And his
favourite jacket, the one Beka said she burned.

He could dive in after them.  He might even get a few things back.  
And he'd be the best-dressed quantum man in the universe.

*

5.  The Lorax on Acid


At some point, the Ubers stop chasing him, but it doesn't stop Harper
from running.  He thinks he might run to San Francisco without ever
slowing down, that his feet might never touch the ground again, that
he might reach escape velocity and explode in the vacuum of space.

Boston ends long before he slows down.  He's way out, past the ruins
and the mess, getting to where he shouldn't be.  They don't know where
the last Magog raiding party came from.  When the adrenaline rush
dies, he'll be scared.  Maybe dead.  Maybe worse.  As long as his
heart's still racing like this, though, he can't stop.  Just duck into
the woods and hope that nothing finds him before he finds his head.

Miles and miles, and he's desperately hungry and his legs weigh like
lead.  He catches a couple of mice and skins them.  Eats them
carefully and cleans his mouth out as best he can without actually
drinking the water.  He'll have to at some point, but he wants to be a
long, long way away from Boston before he lets his skin touch anything
that comes out of the ground.  

Somewhere up in the hills, he doubles over and vomits for a long time.  
He hurts all over.  His feet hurt like a mother of something
engineered.

He's still on the ground, shaking and puking, when branches grab him.

He hits out but all he gets are new bruises.  Lashes out again with
one of the metal bits secreted in his jacket.

"Hum.  I think you had better put that down."  Twigs pull it out of
his hand.  Then flip him over and shake him until the other metal bits
come loose.  "Little Magog."

"I'm not!  Lemme down!"

"You have no business here."

"I'm not Magog!  Jeez, you can't tell me from a big, hairy thing with
teeth oh holy fuck you're a tree!"

"I am not a tree."

"No, see, you're a tree and I'm not a Magog and this is obviously how
you got so confused so how about you put me down and I'll go and we'll
both be confused by ourselves, okay?"

"I am an Ent."

"I don't eat people or even rape them or anything I'm just a...
saywhat?"

"I am an Ent."

"Oookay.  I'm human.  So we're clear on that.  What's an Ent?"

"I speak for the trees."

"Yeah?  What do the trees say?"

"The trees say that you are far too small to be a man."

"Yeah, I could say you're pretty ugly to be a tree, but I'm not.  
'Cause I have manners."

"You are fully grown?"

"And I don't have *fangs*, so yeah, not a Magog.  Just a regular,
plain-old human.  On the run from anything that's gonna eat me.  Are
you?"

"Am I going to eat you?  No.  No.  I may hang you from the trees and
see what comes, but I will not eat you.  I fear you may be
contaminated."

"Hey!"

"Gently, little man."

"Put me down!"

"I think you had better come with me.  There are Magog in the woods,
and I think they would rather enjoy you if you are not one of their
own."

"I'm not, and yeah.  Okay.  Don't put me down.  Not here."

"I think not.  I think you will grow best far from here.  You are
thirsty.  Hum.  Come."

He can hear Magog in the far distance, and still all he can think is
that he's thirsty, and the air smells weirdly clean in a way that
hurts his sinuses.  Like if he crawled up to the top of this thing, he
could see through the dirt in the air and all the way to forever.