August 15, 2381, on a sumptuous Southern Hemisphere spring evening in a region that had once been the birthplace of humanity, Isaac Forge Deangelis--barely seven years alive and still finding his feet in the mind-rich environment of Sol System--accepted the invitation to attend the Annual Graduate's Ball. He did so on the advice of the Archon, whose encouragement that it would be an educational experience had been enough to convince him. Deangelis knew before stepping through the front door that it would be a challenge, and used the decadently quaint cover of "fashionably late" to dawdle along the way. It fit the theme of the evening, anyway.
The magnificent glass ballroom, constructed in the middle of nowhere on the boundary of old Richtersveld National Park, stood out against a backdrop of jagged mountains that bore the scars of their volcanic origins. The sun had already set, but the sky still glowed a deep, diamond-sparkled purple, fading to black in the east. A stand of immature quiver trees made him think of alien soldiers from a B-grade twentieth century movie as he walked up the long, sweeping drive, feeling like a complete fool in black tuxedo with a silk tie choking his Adam's apple. The rest of him, scattered across the system, watched with a mixture of fascination and amusement at the anachronistic get-up. No matter how hard he tried to distract himself, attention kept returning to Earth.
His feet crunched on gravel with a raw, startling sound. A butler met him at the top of the marble stairs and offered to take his coat. The sound of voices grew louder as he trod thick red carpet through an arched doorway and entered the ballroom.
It was an odd experience, being in the company of so many people at once. Like the other guests, he freely roamed the Earth in both corporeal and virtual forms, interacting and communicating with his peers and himself via all manner of media, not needing to be face-to-face for any conceivable reason. The presence of his body on that particular evening, he had assumed, was a mere formality, no more or less anachronistic than the suit he had been asked to wear. Both could have been assembled at will in a moment, as could have a belly dancer's outfit and a body to match. That he hadn't yet decided what his physique would be when he finished his training wasn't an issue he spent much time considering; while he waited, he wore a physical form of indeterminate age, with blonde hair and broad shoulders generated by the genes the Archon had bestowed upon him. It fitted.
The ballroom was expansive and gleaming and full of music. That was his first impression. His second was of the crowd, all beautiful and familiar and garbed in clothes no less outlandish than his own. Out of a thousand, two-dozen pairs of eyes looked up when he crossed the threshold--recognizing him, he assumed, just as he recognized them in turn. He went to wave.
Their true reason for looking at him became apparent when his body lost all connection to the rest of him, scattered across the system, and collapsed down to a mere individual.
He stumbled, as disoriented as if he had lost his sense of sight or balance. His perception of the world, and of himself, suddenly crashed to just him in just one room. Mentally reeling, he struggled to work out what could possibly have gone wrong. Since his awakening in many bodies scattered all across Sol System and experiencing the wondrous union that had risen out of his disparate thoughts, he had never been alone. The experience was jarringly dysfunctional, even frightening.
"Fear not, old boy," said a familiar voice. A hand clapped down on his shoulder. Lazarus Hails was all grin and gloat as he came round to confront his fellow student. He too hadn't fixed his final form, but his nose bore a patriarchal prominence that would remain later. "All part of the experience. You'll find our bodies don't quite work the same way any more, just like our minds."
Deangelis watched Hails with some puzzlement. His balance centers seemed dangerously out of whack, and his speech patterns were different. He had clearly suffered the same mental impairment Deangelis had on entering the ballroom. Were they under attack? Could their brain damage possibly be permanent?
A laugh as sharp as a cut diamond drew Hails's attention away from Deangelis. Lan Cochrane, dressed in a lime green flapper's outfit, was puffing on a cigar--the genuine, burning article--and blowing rings of smoke at Frederica Cazneaux. Dark skinned and wonderful in a black suit of her own, Cazneaux batted the smoke away and turned down a chance to try a drag for herself, despite her friend's insistence. Cazneaux held a cocktail glass containing an electric blue liquid balanced between two fingers; she raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow at Hails as he took Cochrane's cigar and blew a messy cloud between them.
Deangelis looked around in disoriented wonder. Across the shimmering expanse of the ballroom, the vast majority of the Exarchate's future leaders were engaged in similar physical debaucheries: dancing, drinking, snacking, smoking, and singing as though 350 years had rolled back and plunged them all in some upper class Light Ages.
"I think it's an experiment," said Jane Elderton, appearing at Deangelis's side with a thin, white-papered cigarette in a long filter pinned between gloved thumb and forefinger. She smelled of perfume and smoke. "A test, perhaps."
"Not a graduation party?"
"We're beyond that," she said, pale lips pursing in faint amusement. Her skin was porcelain-pale and her gaze a startling blue. Blonde hair--longer than he'd ever seen on her before--curled exquisitely tight around her skull and ears. The color of her silk dress matched her eyes. Deangelis took in her silver necklace, her cleavage, the delicate bracelet on her left wrist, and her thin-strapped shoes with one sweep.
"We don't need rites of passage," she went on, taking a sip of smoke and inhaling it as though she had done so every day of her life. Wisps emerged from her mouth and nostrils as she spoke. "Growing up is something anyone can do. Even animals, and we don't throw them parties."
"Bonding, then, before we all go our separate ways?"
"Wrong again, Ike. Why join something destined to be shattered? We're designed to be loners. It goes with the territory."
He looked around. Something thrilled in the air. He could guess what from the way his flesh responded to it. His heart rate was rapid, along with his respiration. His pupils dilated and his skin tingled. He felt his body in a new way, or a very old way--primal and not entirely unpleasant.
"You need a drink," Jane said. "Is there something you've always wanted to try? Gin and tonic? Sea breeze? Gimlet?"
"Gimlet. How do I--?"
A waiter--artfully humaniform like the butler outside but obviously no more than that--appeared beside him holding a silver tray. His drink rested on it, gleaming with condensation. Deangelis took the glass and sipped carefully. Volatile alcohol made his tongue and throat sing. He laughed at the play of chemicals on and in his suddenly unpredictable body. It was like reading an old novel in its original language, or listening to the first take of a famous jazz recording: full of unexpected nuances and subtleties that he had never anticipated. In the raw flesh, with nothing to distance himself from the play of molecules in his bloodstream, he was suddenly, vividly, nothing but a man. A gendered man in a room full of people, as men had been for tens of thousands of years before him.
He drank and danced and laughed with the rest of them, awash with hormones and pheromones and as utterly delighted as a child with a new toy.
Dinner came, an extended six-course feast with dishes from all over the old world. Some of the partygoers forewent the meal, preferring to keep dancing, but Deangelis took the opportunity to experience another lost art. He had been born with a complete range of culinary skills and knowledge, none of which he had ever expected to use; until now, it had been just one miniscule part of the enormous pool of human knowledge he had inherited. Dining came as natural as play, and he wallowed in the succulence of meat, the richness of gravy, the texture of vegetables, the indulgence of pavlova. Crayfish, pigeon, artichoke, plum; caviar, sturgeon, puy lentils, bread.
The Archon had been absolutely right: the evening was an education he hadn't known he needed. He raised his glass to their absent creator, wondering what it made of the evening's activities from its lofty perspective.
An intoxicating rainbow of after-dinner drinks followed. Port. Sherry. Coffee. Brandy. His grip on proceedings began to slip. He knew he wasn't thinking properly, but that didn't stop him from attributing far too much weight to the thoughts he did have. There was no baseline profundity against which he could measure his drunken revelations. They seemed groundbreaking. Every emotion felt new and powerful. And why couldn't they be? He was content for the moment to be tugged along by alcohol's smooth, seductive currents.
The party spilled out into the night, onto a green grassy lawn he would have sworn hadn't been there before. The interference that separated them from the rest of their minds followed them, maintaining the illusion that they and they alone were the full extent of their beings. Among prickly green hedges and mazes they ran like fools, shouting and stumbling and willfully ignorant.
He gravitated naturally to those whose systems his would neighbor and basked in the broader ambience of merriment. Lazarus Hails's jokes and wickedly timed outrages had kept them all amused through dinner. In another age, he might have been a Byron or a Nicholson, genetically tailored for carousing. Deangelis was content to go with the flow, sipping Merlot or Shiraz on the fringes of the group, only interacting when Giorsal McGrath or Jane Elderton or one of the others drew him in.
He caught Frederica Cazneaux and Lan Cochrane whispering about him behind their hands. They actually blushed.
"You're beautiful, darling," Cochrane said when he pressed her for an explanation. "Don't you know it? You really scored when the genetic dice tumbled. I wonder where your stock comes from."
Lan was a Vietnamese name meaning "orchid". She looked more Malaysian, Deangelis thought, full and high-cheeked, with hair subtly framing her face. Her brown eyes were wide and laughing. He felt the butt of a joke, and blushed in turn.
He became aware of other people looking at him. Some did more than look. In the torch-lit wonderland of the gardens, with shapes rushing by and laughter everywhere, hands touched him; lips pressed against his ear, whispering jokes or flirtations. Warm fingers laced with his and soft hair brushed his cheek. Dizzying stimuli prompted yet more novel sensations.
"Come with me," Frederica Cazneaux breathed in his ear, tugging him down a dead-end in a hedge maze. His free hand held a bottle of champagne he didn't remember picking up. She pulled him to her in the darkness and kissed him. The smell and taste of her occupied his mind more completely than any training exercise. Her lips were full and warm. The touch of her moist tongue against his made his skin shimmer from head to toe. The feel of her body was unimaginable.
Where that kiss might have gone, he would never know. With a rustle and crack of vegetation, Lazarus Hails's head burst through the hedge.
"Enough of that, you two," he said. "Dalman's climbed onto the roof and says he's found a stash of dope!"
They pulled apart. Intrigued by the possibility of yet more sensory destabilization, Deangelis said that he would come. Satisfied, Hails's head retreated through the gap in the hedge. He followed Hails out of the maze and across the lawn, where a conga line had formed. Cazneaux trailed him at first, then fell behind to join the dance.
The sound of raised voices didn't alarm him, nor did the sight of someone vomiting into a flowerbed. He was fully aware of the effects of alcohol poisoning, and had no doubt that he, too, would experience them at some point that night, especially in combination with other drugs. That concern seemed distant and unimportant. His entire being was focused like a poorly tuned laser on the now, with no thought for what had come before and what might follow. His body seemed to move of its own accord. He was little more than a passenger.
Later, he clearly remembered his first hit of marijuana and the rocketing sensation it gave him inside his head. The thick smoke burned his throat and made him cough, but he went back for more as the joint passed round his circle of friends. The notion of stoned Exarchs seemed the height of humor and set off a wave of giggling. The last sequential memory he possessed of that night was of snorting smoke though his nostrils and choking so hard he almost threw up.
Flashes remained, like fragments of a smashed vase. He couldn't piece them together, but he could make out the rough shapes of those that were missing. More kissing followed an extended discussion with Giorsal McGrath over the long-term goals of humanity. What conclusion they came to, he couldn't remember, but it seemed deeply important. They had called out to the Archon, wanting to share their wisdom, but not received a reply.
A blur of faces. People everywhere. Women were soft to the touch, men hard and angular, their stubble rough against his lips. He stuck with women in the end, but wondered if he had made the right decision when a fight broke out between Lan Cochrane and Frederica Cazneaux over who had kissed him first, and what rights that gave them over him. Hails joined in, seeming upset that Cazneaux wasn't paying him enough attention. Deangelis felt removed from it all, wanting nothing but to touch and be touched.
Rows flared over sexual partners, territory, imagined slights, nothing at all. He wandered off, feeling suddenly tired.
"Strike up the band," said Jane Elderton, who had appeared at his side again, her hair unpinned and her cheeks red. "We're apes dancing to tunes we didn't even know we knew."
"Is this all it takes?" he asked. "Are we so close to chaos, to savagery?"
"They're not the same thing, Ike--but yes, I think we are. You can fire clay and turn it into brick; you can lay a brick in a wall and make it part of a building; that building can be one of thousands in a city; but at the end of the day it's all still clay. And so are we, underneath. If we don't understand the clay, we don't understand the city."
"That's what this is all about, then?"
"I think so. Don't you?"
He shrugged. "I'm enjoying not thinking, for once."
Her smile warmed him. "I'm glad. Let's go."
The darkness awaited them. He wanted to run, to let muscles swing and push and carry him blindly across the ancient land, naked under the stars they claimed. The two of them might have run together a mile or ten, or not run at all; he didn't remember; but the night ended with his breath coming fast and hot from his lungs, and her moving against him with a feverish urgency of her own. All semblance of rational thought vanished in an explosion of nerve impulses. His spinal chord, electrified from base to brain, seemed to dissolve, and the night dissolved with it. Skin against skin, they reveled.
Everything was gone when he awoke the next morning: the ballroom, the gardens, his fellow Exarchs, the maze. If being human meant enduring a hangover, he resolved to do so for as little time as he could. Still, it took him almost an hour to flush out the last of the toxins--an eternity during which he railed at the quiver trees and the hills in lieu of the Archon and yearned for reconnection with the rest of himself.
Why hadn't the Archon warned them? If they'd known in advance, they could've been prepared. They would've behaved better. Unless behaving badly was the whole point. Humans had once done so as a matter of course. If he'd got together with his peers for a lovely chat and maybe a nice game of bridge, what would he--this part of him, excised from the rest and brutally exposed to ancient impulses--have learned about humanity then?
It hadn't all been bad, he supposed. The night had actually started off perfectly well, even if it had degenerated with a terrible, inexorable momentum. He viewed the world anew as a result--unwilling to trust himself, wary of what lay just beneath the skin of civilization. He resolved to change his body--all his bodies, wherever they were--to appeal less to the suspect levels of his mind and those around him. It had all been so pointless: the squabbling, the fighting, the petty rivalries, the poisoning. He wanted no part of it.
"If we need to understand ordinary humanity in order to rule it," he yelled at the Archon as the rest of him rolled back into place and the solar system unfolded before him, "don't we need to experience it from above as well as below? Shouldn't we get a glimpse of the world through your eyes, so we can see a bigger picture still?"
Fifteen years later, when the complete Isaac Forge Deangelis went forth to govern his remote pocket of the Exarchate, he was still waiting for an invitation.
(An excerpt from Geodesica: Descent, co-written with Shane Dix.
This story originally appeared in Terra Incognita.