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Book 1 of the 3-book Series Scales
Merry shivered. Her skin already ached from the slap of cold, but she zipped up her faux-fur coat anyway. Maybe another blast of shade-cooled air would strike before she could get inside, and the coat could protect her.
The clock tower on Park read 78. The sensor must be in the sun. She reminded herself to wear another layer for the walk to and from work, or, in fact, through any shadows at all.
A group of her co-workers flew by her, calling “Bye, Merry!”
Their fur coats flapped like wings and their smiles didn’t look frozen or forced.
They have it together; why can’t I get it together?
Merry squinted against the glare of the advertisements and the blowing grit. Having it together or not, she was on a mission. She just needed to find the right one; the right little place to get a drink where she might be able to get her first glimpse of a real-life G’Leo. Somewhere private, somewhere anonymous.
Something moved in a sliver of sun between two buildings. A hint of gold, the suggestion of an arm.
There. A G’Leo, she was sure. She only saw it for a moment, but how many humans walked around New New York with metallic skin? Not while fur was haute couture.
She turned toward the alley, taking mincing steps in a wide circle around Lynnch Bradley Insurance to get a better perspective of where the creature had gone. Her chest tightened as more and more of the street behind became exposed. She put a hand out to the smooth concrete building next to her, grounding herself. Just a few more steps. . .
“Merry,” a voice called from behind her.
Adrenaline shot into Merry’s fingers. Her heart lurched. Merry slapped a hand to her chest and spun around into the wind. Another frigid gust caught her right in the face. Her mouth filled with the flinty taste of the desert just two streets away.
It was Julie, leaping from the Syllergy front door, smirking. Merry managed to squelch her urge to smack the woman and waved instead. Wasn’t it bad enough she had taken Merry’s work life? Now she wanted to scare her to death? Or what, to traipse along New New York with her, too, in the social hours? Not likely.
Merry squinted against the breeze. Something weird was going on with her colleague, other than the sudden interest in Merry. The fur of Julie’s coat ruffled in the wind as she jogged across the road, but her hair didn’t. Her features didn’t look right, either. Her eyes and lips shone less. They looked poorly defined.
“What’re you doing now?” Although her tone was gratingly chipper, her voice sounded dull, too, like someone speaking from under a blanket. But the scent of her expensive perfume reached Merry without difficulty. As Julie moved closer, Merry could see her cheeks reddened in the wind, but still couldn’t make out a single freckle. Some kind of mask?
Merry cast a glance toward the alleyway, but no sign of the G’Leo remained. She bit her lip. There’s no way she saw him, Merry decided. “Just looking for a place to get a drink.” Merry could smell Julie’s make-up now, too. She looked hard at her colleague’s face, but it still didn’t make sense. Julie looked like she had a piece of plastic over her head, like she were a lettuce from the produce aisle. Only Julie’s head cover didn’t move like plastic; it didn’t suck in with each inhale and blow out with each exhale like a film of plastic would. It just fluttered gently on its own.
Julie laughed, yanking Merry’s attention away from her headgear. She linked her arm with Merry’s. If she noticed anything odd in Merry’s expression, she didn’t say it. “Oh, I’ve got something much better we can do. Why don’t you come to the market with me and I’ll make you dinner. You can tell me all about yourself and how you met Annalise.”
Annalise. That must be Blondie Junior’s name. Merry hadn’t heard it well during the song. That was one mystery solved. And another presented: How was she going to get out of spending quality girl-time with Julie?
But then the rest of Julie’s offer sank in: going to the market. Didn’t Julie mention that she had a G’Leo friend at the market? Julie just handed Merry an opportunity to get a good look at a G’Leo. Without stalking half-seen glimpses between buildings.
“Sure,” Merry answered, holding Julie’s hand on her arm. “What do they sell at the Market?”
Julie steered Merry left, and within a step, the sun slammed Merry in the side of the face, staggering her. She lifted her free arm to block it from her eyes. Julie’s hip-swinging walk bumped Merry to the side again, and the combination caught her off-guard once more. She stumbled half a step, recovered.
“Oh, don’t worry about those. You want to just hop right over them,” Julie said. She pointed at the ground with her free hand.
Julile dropped Merry’s arm to execute a little dance. Merry tried to blink the dark spots out of her vision and see what was going on. But as her sight cleared, all she could see were the snakes by her feet.
Merry leapt into the air, trying to avoid the tan and dun-colored snakes winding down the street. But far from avoiding the thing, her foot landed down right on the body of one.
And went right through.
Merry blinked more to clear out her eyes and get a better look, but the snake drifted away.
She bit both of her lips between her teeth, swearing at herself.
“Sand-snakes?” Merry asked.
Julie laughed again at her, “Duh. Did you think they were real snakes?”
“I—” Merry started. Her cheeks heated. “I’ve seen snow snakes before, but I didn’t realize sand would do the same thing.”
“Unfortunately for my best shoes, yeah, sand does it, too. Like I said, you want to hop over them.”
Merry leaned down and beat the dust off of her pants legs, but most of it just flew into her mouth. She straightened, coughing. Once her lungs were clear, she ran her tongue around her teeth, frowning at the gritty dirt in it. Toothpaste manufacturers must be making a mint.
“You’ll probably want to get a scarf, too.” Julie told her.
Merry watched as Julie yanked the film off her head. The scarf, freed, drifted about on eddies, as light as smoke. “I swear, Merry, didn’t you do any research at all before coming here?” She shook her finger.
Thinking back on the hours Merry spent at her desk, reading everything there was to read about HD and the G’Leo, made Merry’s neck hurt all over again.
“I guess not.” At least, not about the humans here.
“They make them really sheer. Some kind of nanotechnology, I think, but whatever. I mean, they keep the sand out of your eyes and mouth and they don’t bulk you up, so it’s worth it just to keep from having to brush your teeth ten times a day.”
She held the fabric out to Merry, who dutifully fondled it.
Merry let her voice sound as bored as she felt by the subject: “Yep, like it’s not even there.”
“I went for the green,” Julie said, looking around the cityscape, “You miss green after a year or so here.”
Whether the scarf was green or clear, Merry could not tell. Maybe, if it were all bunched up together or folded, it looked green, but spread out and floating in the air currents, it simply appeared transparent, or it didn’t appear at all. Merry shrugged to herself. She really didn’t care.
After a second of silence, Merry noticed Julie again. She looked lost in her thoughts, or was perhaps striking an introspective pose to look deep. In either case, she seemed to want Merry to look around the city with her. So Merry looked around, too.
The landscape of New New York appeared much the same as the landscape of any big Earth city: asphalt roads and tall buildings. Advertisements for software cleaners and phone companies warred for her and everyone else’s eyes. There was a dearth of vehicles here; she could see both ends of New New York from where they stood and nary a taxi. She supposed that, yes, after some amount of time here you’d miss the color green, but no more than in any city.
What does she want me to look at?
And then Merry noticed where Julie was really looking. Off to the West between two buildings, the city ended, bisecting the street. It looked as though someone had cut the city mid-intersection. As if the city planners meant for the grid of streets to continue, but someone else had said, “Nope. End it right here,” and chopped the plans right there. Beyond sat a sand plain dotted with low domes, dozens of them, like squat aliens rising up out of the ground. Except these dunes had windows.
Merry hadn’t gotten to that part of the city yet, but she’d heard of it.
“ScalyTown,” Merry murmured. Her hairs stood up and made the skin on her forearms ache.
The Town did not resemble a town in the human sense. Buildings on the far edge seemed nearly swallowed by dunes, while others, closer to the human city, stood apart from one another. They looked like soldiers marching out from the sandy ocean to attack the humans’ high-rises.
And there were G’Leo. Merry’s eyes stuck on each one that she saw. Skinny limbs clutched at items they carried, or steadied the bags on their shoulders. Tails swished back and forth with every step, fanning the sand but not quite touching it, generating trailing miniature versions of the sand snakes Merry had hopped over moments ago.
“Smell,” Julie commanded.
Merry inhaled the breeze blowing in from the alien town. Sand, yes, but also a biting, ammoniac scent.
Strange. Her shoulders tensed up. The fluttering in her gut did not distinguish between excitement and fear.
Her mouth pulled down. “Weird.” But it was more than weird. There was something scandalous.
She cocked her head close to Julie’s, whispered, “I didn’t realize they didn’t wear any clothes.” Merry swallowed on a dry throat, “Like animals.” But she couldn’t tear away her gaze.
“Nope, none.” Julie said. She giggled, “Not a stitch.” She put up her hand to hide another giggle, “But nothing, you know, shows,” she said, pointing at the G’Leo, and then downward on her own body toward her groin.
Merry spared a glace for the gesture, but the scene before her snagged her gaze again. Yes, the nudity was scandalous, but there was something else. Something seemed. . .off about the town. Another gust needled her skin with tiny shards. She put her hands up to protect her face and closed her eyes. But there was something about the town that made her teeth ache, like a piercing high note.
Merry listened. No piercing high notes. Nothing but the sigh and scatter of the sand. From this distance, she could not even hear the G’Leo speaking, if they were speaking to one another at all. Her teeth still ached, and ground together. Bits of sand and dust crunched between her molars.
The needles died down, allowing Merry another good look. What is it? What’s wrong with this place?
Her mouth dropped open. As Merry looked at the little city, she saw it. She snapped her fingers, pointed.
“They don’t have anything but houses.” She scanned as much of the town as she could see, but the houses marched along, uniform. “They don’t have any restaurants or stores, or. . .or anything,” she said.
Julie clucked her tongue in Merry’s ear. “Not in ScalyTown, no. A few come into the city to the Market, but it took a long time for even that to happen.”
Merry frowned, “I guess I knew that. I mean, it’s hard to have a business if you don’t believe in money, right? But it’s just so different to actually see it.”
“They don’t have any businesses,” Merry stressed. “If you ask them about it, they get all offended, most of them. Poor savages. That’s why I don’t go in there. I prefer to get any cultural exchange at the Market, where they’re all a bit more civilized.”
Merry huddled in closer to Julie and shivered. “Let’s go to the Market now. I can’t stay here. This is just too—too alien.”
“...Said invading species,” came the voice from behind them.
Julie whirled around. Behind them—right behind them—stood a giant G’Leo. He towered two feet over her, easy. But somehow the pointy teeth stared right in her face.
Panic seized Merry’s throat. She spun away, giving the creature a wide berth as she sprinted toward the safety of her own people’s clean, safe rectangles. Three blocks later, she slowed down and bent over to catch her breath in the thin air.
Merry sucked wind and coughed. The sand choked her, and the air was so dry that breathing hard just made her throat stick together. Her view of the street and Julie’s shoes began to collapse in on itself.
“We need a drink,” Julie said. She patted Merry on the back. She huffed and puffed the same as Merry, but did not seem as shocked. Had she known there was a G’Leo sneaking up behind them?
“Here, this block has the best bar in town. Humans Only.”
Merry could only nod. Humans Only was exactly what she needed right now.
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