Maybe they just don’t care. Margery followed the pull of the lever ahead and leaped for it.
“Aaaccchhh—” Margery spat. A gust of wind had pinned her gauzy, gorgeous garment to the mouth of the corridor as she stepped outside the Blocks. Above her, people seated on a restaurant terrace tittered at her. Their own flimsy, all-encompassing clothes flickered in the breeze like flames. Theirs had acquired the tears and jags that were considered attractive; hers were just snagged. She groped gingerly around the rough metal and wiring that snaked across the doorway, over every claustrophobic, cobbled-together part of the Blocks. How can this stuff be so fragile and still get stuck so tight?
The lunch crowd was definitely amused by her situation. She heard eyes click as pictures were saved. They couldn’t wait. Clearly, she had to give the stuff a good yank. Who knows how much of herself would be aired out for the world to see? That would be that for work today. She’d have to wait, hidden at home, for a carrier to pick their way through the maze of her Block to bring her new clothes. She might be out of work for days if her boss was feeling especially outraged at Margery’s public indecency. The crowd at the rail was gathering.
Why in the hell do I have to care about this shit? The crowd’s clothes covered the same intolerably imperfect flesh as hers did. If bodies are so horrible, why is this the only thing acceptable to wear?
One teenage boy caught her eye. She saw him uncomfortably shifting as his friends urged him to do... what? Expose himself? Surely not. Margery growled and pulled. The crowd shrieked and laughed as shreds of her clothes floated up in the currents.
The thing that had caught her clothes was a lever, like a walking stick, that was connected to something she couldn’t see. It was as scarred, scratched, and dirty as any other part of the Blocks, but the free end shone as if polished by every hand that passed it, bright yellow metal emerging from a blackish-green patina. On its side were the inscribed words:
WELCOME TO THIS PERFECT WORLD
Thanks for making everything just a little bit worse, Margery thought, and banged the lever up and out of her way with one naked arm.
Margery trudged across the icy ground, reins in hand. She gave the three winter towns ahead a wide berth. Inside the space created by the settlements, the clans were throwing their First Light party, anticipating the few minutes the sun would peek over the horizon for the first time in months. The worst part of winter would follow, but it was unthinkable not to celebrate the light. There would be fires made the way they’d always been and feasts cooked according to recipes handed down for generations uncounted. Gifts would be given, mostly new clothes decorated with bright embroidery exactly like that of clan mothers and fathers buried in the ice hundreds of years ago. Dancing the same hop-in-place or swing-your-partner dances never failed to delight. The same songs would be sung, the same pipes played, the same drums beat, beautiful and unchanging. Time rolled with the Earth in endless repetition. Weddings were blessed, children named, and Two-Spirits recognized under the three minutes of light. Margery could tell the schedule by the rhythms of the drums and the thin, sweet melodies. She was voiceless and outcast, the one victim of the Strike-Speak fever. Nobody bothered Margery, but nobody acknowledged her existence, either. She traced a long, long course around the migration routes.
At the limit of the sounds of singing, lit only by the reflected glow of the stars in the glassy ice, there was a small upright bundle. Margery sighed and turned toward it. Lumbering behind her was Duda, 40 feet high at the shoulder, thick woolly hair hanging nearly to the ground. Duda rolled his shoulders philosophically and turned the way his tiny companion wanted.
The bundle was bigger than she’d expected. Crumpled to her knees was a girl of perhaps 12 with white hair and tattooed cheeks. Margery leaned in to smell for warm breath and found it. The girl’s nose was dead with frostbite, but her cheeks were probably saved by the caked tears on them. In her arms was a smaller bundle, also warm, and behind her, footprints trailed back toward the three towns.
Margery hauled her upright and carried her. The girl’s feet made vague paddling movements. There was no telling where that will to keep walking came from, but Margery nodded, satisfied. She carried the girl through the thick, heavy curtains of reddish-gray wool under Duda’s body and toward the massive creature’s pouch.
“Haa haa, I have a little brother,” she gasped.
The girl’s voice, still raspy and thick through numb lips, changed to a sweet singsong. “Silly girl, why are you playing with that? We have to bury it before the sun comes up.”
The girl mimicked dozens of voices, mindless and repetitive as birdsong: “It’s not really a baby.” “Real babies are born every four years.” “That’s just a hungry ghost.” “Best to get it done before it can eat more of you.”
Margery lifted the girl, whose arms were still locked around her bundle, and slid her into the mouth of Duda’s pouch. Rank warm air puffed out as she did. Head and shoulders into the body-warm, downy pouch interior, Margery did a head count. Six babies and the 12-year-old, and the worst of the winter yet to come. If she found any more she’d have to start stacking them.
Her eyes stung from the cold as she parted Duda’s hair and emerged back onto the ice. The wind blew a few notes of the party back to her. Margery stood a long time and stared in their direction. Duda was a peaceful creature, but the right words would see him flatten the towns.
But they’re happy. Margery sighed, took the reins, and walked on. Where the girl had been sitting (had she tripped over it?) was a bar of glinting gold metal, rimed with frost, stuck into the ice. Margery squinted at it, annoyed at its unplaceable familiarity. On its side, it read WELCOME TO THIS PERFECT WORLD.
Margery thought about the inside of the ring of towns, and then the outside, and then leaned against Duda’s vast front leg. He rumbled gently from deep under his rib cage, itself as big as any of the houses in town. Margery sighed and kicked at the lever. It clanked obligingly down.
Entering the next small, sterile chamber, Margery saw the desk with the small red button waiting to be pushed and went into her calisthenics. Left, left, right, turn, turn, turn, turn, hop, hop, hop, hop, clap, right, clap, right, up, down, higher, higher—
“Jesus!” said the Regulator in his white military lab coat. “Push the goddamn button—”
“No,” snapped Margery, bouncing on one foot. “It’s for good luck, and you interrupted me. I’m starting over.” On the front of her file in heavily underlined red ink, it said ANXIETY. She’d long since stopped begging for information. Left, left, right, turn, turn, turn, turn, hop, hop, hop, hop, clap, right, clap, right, up, down, higher, higher, flap flap flap flap flap flap flap, twirl left, twirl left, hopscotch, hopscotch, hopscotch, right, right, down—
“For luck? What do you mean luck? There’s no luck involved. It has nothing to do with you personally. That was the whole point, so nobody has to see any of it actually happen—”
“Damn it! Look what you did. You made me lose count—” Margery pivoted to get to her starting point, a place centered between the two walls and at least three feet from the door. Left, left, right, turn, turn, turn, turn, hop, hop—
“It’s not our fault if none of you can be bothered to find out anything about what you vote for! Please, lady, dance all you want. Just push the fucking button first!”
“No! Shut up, and let me finish. I’ll do your stupid experiment or whatever, but—” the Regulator threw his clipboard over his shoulder and leaped at her. Screaming in a high-pitched voice like a steam whistle, Margery spun around the room like a top. The Regulator’s feet tangled in her whirlwind, his grip on her right arm bearing her hand in wild arcs to the ceiling, the floor, the door, around and around until they both collapsed in a tangle, like a pack of wire hangers.
“Now look what you’ve done,” she wailed. “I’ll never remember what I just did, ever, ever!” Snapping her limbs with great force, as if crawling were climbing, she cleared herself of his grip and vaulted up to the table.
It did not feel good to lose count. Regulators were all liars and hypocrites. Bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam went her fist on the button, and nine more just to make sure.
“There. I did it. I told you I would do it,” she panted, flinging sweaty hair out of her face. “But something bad’s going to happen now. I know it, I know—” and Margery burst into tears, still hopping quarter-arcs in a tight circle. North, west, south, east, north, south, west, east, now back around the other way. So absorbed was she in her ritual that she didn’t see the ugly cottage cheese color of the Regulator’s face.
But in the next small, sterile chamber, there was a lever.
Margery stood patiently, waiting to receive her Sentence. Being an Adjective, she could do nothing until at least one Noun showed up, preferably with a Verb. She’d been part of a short, choppy, inelegant Clause before, serviceable, but nothing to be proud of. They’d all agreed to break up after cutting Adverbs had proven no real improvement. Margery dreamed of a life as a Sentence, long and evocative and melodic. She wasn’t witty. She was far too prosaic to be clever on her own, but Adjectives always found a home somewhere, even when they contributed little.
It was galling not to be able to go anywhere unaccompanied. Nouns were often agreeable people, but Verbs were so damned bossy, no matter how common or dull they were. Adjectives had little to do with them for good reason, but there was no question that they ran things. Margery bounced lightly on her toes, bare on the glittering glass floor. Her brilliant green skin, unoccluded by clothing, reflected faintly in the wall behind her. Everything was glass.
Two halls away, strings of kindergarteners in playgroups ran past hand in hand. “Look it up! Lock her up! Tell me how! Tell us now!” She shivered a little at all the implied subject nouns. The lines of kids were missing the orange-skinned Nouns that should have led them. Kids will be kids, she thought. But she thought of the Nouns again and frowned.
A Common Preposition, two young girls and a boy, stepped out of an elevator and lined up against the wall near Margery. The gray-skinned Article, a pretty girl of 12, and the orange Noun, a teenage boy, smiled at her politely, but the older purple Preposition cut her eyes at them and they stood at attention. Clearly, she had her Noun where she wanted him.
The afternoon rush had begun. The streets began to fill with streams of Sentences. Seeing all of the colors in their strands, strolling, jogging, or jaywalking, the order soothed Margery. The right group for her was out there. She might be plain, but she was versatile. Toddlers, too young to stay connected to each other, sang nonsense as they passed: “See, saw, Marjorie Daw, see, saw… ”
She jumped at the sound of a voice being cleared. A stern-looking Simple Sentence in black uniform body paint addressed her. “How long have you been here alone?
“Ah— nice? Uh, pretty, ah— half? I— uncertain?” The Verb made a face at her fumbling, his blue face darkening. The Preposition spoke sharply. “For shame! You know she’s alone. Under these circumstances, she can join us. For the moment.”
Margery shuffled quickly to her place between the Noun and the Article, shrinking under the authority of the Sentence. Once she was settled, her voice steadied. “I’m waiting for my date. They’re coming soon— I’m not wild; I’m patient.” The kids looked so familiar.
The Noun scribbled a note down on his left arm. “Fine. Don’t let us catch you with some Expletive. You’re not one of them, and don’t forget it.” They strode on.
“Out,” snapped the Preposition, jerking her thumb back to the spot Margery had vacated. The kids protested.
“Oh, Mom, just for a minute— until her people—” the Noun linked his orange fingers into her green ones.
“Don’t butter me up with Propers. It’s cheap,” declared the Preposition, who was barely out of her teens herself. “We’re fine without you. Besides, you have people coming.” Margery smiled weakly, squeezed the kid’s hand, and grimaced against the tearing sensation she felt at leaving her place.
The Sentences outside were packed densely now, the color patterns complex and fascinating. Here and there were off-colors: elegant Archaic Words, outlandish Loanwords, shabby Misused Words begging in the gutter, the jagged neon patterns of a popular Vulgar Slang cackling madly as they ran headlong.
Phalanxes of lengthy Legalese marched down the street, parting the crowd. Interjections appeared as if from nowhere. The Paragraphs, unearthly in their white paint, their true colors showing only in broad stripes down their faces, led a string of manacled-together Neologisms.
“What colors are they, even?” asked the Article behind her, in a revolted tone. The Noun said, “No color. New color. If they settle.” The young Word shrugged. “If they get a chance.”
“Barf,” his partner replied, but before her Preposition could scold her, the first chunk of broken glass flew and hit an elderly Neo in the side of the head. Two others, gorgeous despite their oil-rainbow color, tried to shield her with their chained arms. One of the Portmanteau shouted, “Leave us alone! None of you have the balls—” and a razor-sharp shard of glass, spinning as it flew, cut deep into his face. Red, red, red, the blood flowed down his greasy and uncertain skin. Red, that terrifying color. Screams and more glass sparkled as hands and feet broke it loose and threw it harder.
“Words,” wept the Noun. “They’re Words. They’re just Words.”
“Young,” blurted Margery wearily. The face of the Neologism that had cried out burned in her mind. She drifted off the wall, unthinking, and found herself drifting with a host of other Adjectives. “Horrible... unspeakable... ugly... wrenching... banal... evil...” They moaned continually, but no one knew whether they were referring to the carnage or its perpetrators.
Margery stopped short. A slab of glass, broken into weapons by the angry Sentences, had caught her across the calf.
She clutched her leg in horror, anticipating the unbearable color of blood, but there was nothing. The skin flap curled in her hand. Underneath, a flash of orange.
Margery was shedding her skin. Underneath, she was a Noun. She was out on the street. There was nowhere to hide. If she was seen Changing... alone... Changing was not spoken of and certainly not seen. Margery had never considered how it could be hidden in a city made entirely of glass. Surely, it was least noticeable under the protection of a Sentence at least, if not a whole Paragraph, where people could shift around more naturally. Not by herself. Not alone.
The blood-smeared glass street was slippery. Margery ducked under Sentences’ clasped hands, ignoring their shouts, weaved and dodged. She had no idea where to go. Her prospective Sentences wouldn’t want her now, but it didn’t matter. She was a Noun. She had to find a Phrase. Any Phrase.
She ran headlong into an Expletive. He’d popped out of nowhere. “Shit!” screamed the man, all neon stripes and zigzags. “Holy!” Margery screamed back, matching his tone. The Expletive grinned and slapped her. Her skin ripped straight down her face. Orange skin gleamed.
“Fuuuuhhhck... ” gasped the Expletive. “Me!” added Margery, tearing at the seams of her skin. The crowd hovered, uncertain.
The Expletive grabbed her arm, his eyes hard. “No, fuck you!” he snarled. Margery twisted her arm to be free of his grip, leaving jags of green skin in his hands, but he wouldn’t let go. Suddenly, she stepped in and turned the Expletive’s own skinny arms against him. He barked his short words over and over until she locked his eyes with hers and hissed, “Ssssssshhhhhh.”
The fight and the fear leaked out of him. Margery’s newly orange face relaxed, and the Expletive’s lopsided smile grew. Yes, she was a Noun now.
Six months later, her shoulders sagged as she stood on a terrace looking down at the Words staggering unconnected through the streets, stuttering single syllables and nonwords or moaning or screaming. Her Verb, her beautiful, brave Verb, sat on a corner, eyes riveted to her shaking hands, struggling, “To— to— toog— oh? G-g-geh? To et?” It had all fallen apart.
Margery had formed the core idea of a whole Thesis, drawing together gorgeous patterns of thought into Paragraph after Paragraph, with more finding their places in her structure every day. Elsewhere, variations on her Theme had begun building themselves. She’d told them how they could form greater Stories by effecting change in themselves personally by tolerating it in others, and how to do it... all over now.
Margery looked up and squinted to focus her eyes. It was still hard to do and felt wrong. Above the glass city, there was a level built of concrete and steel, opaque and ignored by all Words from the day of their birth. Inside were the Letters with their strange, uncolored bodies and inscrutable faces. They wore clothing, like the skins of Words, cut and pieced to fit. They made the world.
When Margery’s message began to spread, the Letters stood at their windows and formed a new utterance: ACHROMATOPSIC. The Words below had absorbed the new concept without awareness of where it had come from. The result was chaos. ACHROMATOPSIC broke all bonds and spread like a disease. Only the youngest children seemed unaffected, skipping through the crowds, thrilled with their liberty, chanting, “Ay! Crow! Ma-top! Sick! Ay! Crow! Ma-top! Sick!”
The few adult Words unaffected by the Spell were, like Margery, hugging the walls of the corridors as former family and friends staggered, wept, and rambled aimlessly but urgently. If the Letters could do this, she thought, they could do anything. Why, why, why do... this?
Maybe they just don’t care. Margery followed the pull of the lever ahead and leaped for it.
Margery twirled on the show floor in her enormous dress. She had just been sold at auction for a record-breaking price. The chorus crooned the digits of her sale price, and the Robber Baron’s daughter was now undeniably the Crown Princess. The band blared. The whole world watched the broadcast: a glorious season of murdering rivals competing to steal lovers awaited her, and they were eager to watch. Margery slung an ankle in a ridiculously expensive shoe above her head to hook around the shining gold pole upright in the center of the floor. The crowd rumbled in anticipation. Everything was perfect. Money would be collected in vast quantities, and everyone who had nothing would be inspired. Or if they weren’t, it didn’t matter. During Redistribution years when the wealth was shuffled evenly to every person, nobody was happy. TV was so dull during those years. They preferred Princesses. They’d always prefer Princesses. A Princess could sway the Audience toward what she deemed important.
But only as long as she did what they liked. Her life had been lived on camera since the day of her conception. She’d been taught that there was ruin in too much improvisation. If she lost her Audience, what would she be? Could she lose them, given how much money she represented now? Was she just trying to make a bigger splash and still stick to her script? Or did she really want to know what it would be like not to have one? Did she want this life, or was she just determined to be good at it?
Margery swallowed champagne-flavored vomit and spoke into her microphone.
“Watch this shit.”
She inverted herself and twirled around the pole, skirts flying, and the lever gracefully slid down. The Audience had expected a spectacular pole routine, not... this was like watching a Baron light a cigar with a painted masterpiece. The lever chunked into place. Margery grinned savagely at the thunderstruck crowd—
The Residence was an island of paradisiacal beauty, glittering sand and crystalline water, jeweled fish and heavenly scented trees. Food of every kind was in endless abundance on paths that led from one vista to the next, each more stunning than the last. Margery had her opinions about which view was best at what time of day, but they mattered only to her. The next Resident would no doubt have their own ideas.
Margery walked barefoot down the worn stone of the north side of the island, but she stopped short of the wide overlook with its carved railings. The height above sea level here was right. The conditions were right. The mirage at the sea’s horizon shimmered.
The mainland could not be seen from the island, except on those rare days when the air and the sea and the angle of the sun were all in alignment. A vision of the farther shore loomed up at the horizon, and she could see the land, solid walls of interlocking buildings to the shore, and the moving lights of machines building higher, higher, and the endless marching ants that were uncountable mobs of people. They lived their lives shoulder to shoulder, sitting on each other’s laps if they sat at all, lying down in stacks to sleep at night, walking most of their days, delivering things to each other by handing things down or up the line. Only the Resident lived alone. The rest of the world made the best of it.
The mirage stretched and shrank, doubled and inverted, and sank finally into a simple line at the seam of sea and sky. Margery shivered. What special qualities had put her here? She had no idea. Nobody knew. It was the will of everyone that there was a Resident. It was the one good thing that people could grant. It helped people to think of one person living alone in peace. They could get on with life knowing the Residence existed. But Margery, having been chosen, she must be something special. Something different. The line between her life before and her life now was indelibly drawn. Margery was alone, thereby different, and therefore better than everyone else.
Margery stopped suddenly among the trees just before a great clearing. Was that someone standing… ? It couldn’t be. Her ears buzzed, her heart pounded. If it was a person, what could she bring them? A flower, a drink, a string of coral beads? Her nerves twitched and jerked as she struggled not to scrabble on the ground for a fist-sized rock or a sharpened stick. She stumbled unwillingly forward to greet her visitor and learn their purpose.
A mask, wrought in dull bronze, grinned at her from atop a heavy pole. Dark, dried lacquer covered its support. A face? Eyes, cheeks, lips, brow, but weirdly proportioned: the thick, pointed ears on top of the head? A pig’s head. Its elfin, alien eyes gazed down knowingly. Hesitantly she lifted it from its perch. It was heavy and slippery, and she dropped it. Even face-down in the sand, she knew what question it would ask of her. Strands of memory, dreamlike and unconnected before this moment, wound themselves tightly together now. The post that had supported it was the lever. The familiar gold of the handle shone in the soft green gloom. WELCOME TO THIS PERFECT WORLD.
Only for some, she thought, and braced her feet to pull it down.
On her lunch break, Margery pushed back her plate and thumbed through a magazine. The main article was about yet another country at war, gorgeously composed photo after photo of rubble and women with stunned, starved eyes. The one that stopped her cold was of a water pump in the center of what had been a town, a pump of a type she recognized. She’d seen it in a charity catalog and had donated one-thirtieth of the price to have one like it built. It seemed like a thing she could do that was entirely harmless.
This pump was different. This one had a handle of burnished brass that shone against the bullet-ridden bricks and the maroon sky, churning with clouds and smoke. Survivors were suffering terribly from thirst, old people and little children, the article said.
But it’s right there, thought Margery, why doesn’t somebody do something?
She was a long time in finding out.
Margery clung to the lever as Guards stomped on her fingers, unable to break her grip as they could her bones. No one would stop them; she was a Prisoner. The other Prisoners chanted from their cells. The faces she had seen over and over in world after world ran through her mind: the abandoned children, the starved, the murdered, those stripped of their names, their freedom, their flesh; the armies of have-nots who never knew how much more they could lose. The multitudes of the satisfied willing to fire a single weapon or word to defend the world as it was because, after all, one bullet was nothing. The burnt, the blamed, the forgotten, the lost. The savage joy of the uplifted, the faces under their feet. She’d never seen any better than half of them happy at once — in this world or any other. It was just another pull at the lever.
The great clock on the wall took a deep mechanical breath and struck midnight. The cell doors burst open. The Guards fell to their knees, fired their guns into the crowds or their own heads, ran down the halls or sought refuge in the cells. The new year had begun, and they were now Prisoners. The new Guards shouted and sang as they took their revenge. A few shot desperate glances up at Margery. Each year, Guards became Prisoners, Prisoners became Guards, and peacemakers were few and far between.
I’ll never win. Somebody’s always suffering. The House always wins, she thought, and clutched the lever of... what? A slot machine? Where was she?
A memory that couldn’t be hers. A dream? An illusion flickered in the spots before her eyes. Her six-year-old feet skimming swiftly over battered gray grass, twinkly, too-bright colored lights, shards of mirror, the wild music of a steam calliope. The Flying Horses carousel at the county fair. The world spun, the fairground reeled, the wooden horses heeled gently as the carousel gained speed. Margery gripped the brass pole that suspended her and her most beautiful steed. Around and around and around, and she would never forget the joy of it. It was a long jump down, for the Flying Horses had no platform, and her legs felt like straws as she ran grinning back to her mother.
Her mother hadn’t wanted to give her the nickel to ride. “Well, you has spent your money. You has had your ride, but you tell me—” and her mother’s face was her own face, and she glared down at the little girl before her. “Where did you go?”
Past her mother’s fist on her hip Margery could see the carousel’s operator, who smiled through a great weight of wrinkles and pulled the polished brass lever to start the ride again. Margery smiled, relenting, at her daughter and twisted her wedding ring, loose on her finger.
Margery drew herself carefully to her feet, looking down on her people. She clutched the lever, slippery with blood or sweat or grease. Everybody should get a ride, a chance at their own more perfect world. Even if we just go around and around and around.
“I love you,” she cried, unheard by anyone in this world, or the last or the next. “I love you all.” She used her body weight to pull the lever again and again and again.