PURESTATE A quantum system that cannot be described as a mixture of any others
Saturday night, and Cade was headed to the one place on Andana that she didn’t hate. The one place where she could be around other humans and almost stand it.
First she had to put on the right armor: black skirt, black gloves. Spiked her lashes with a bit of black market mascara, checked the effect in a broken-tipped triangle of mirror. Added two matching oil slicks of eyeliner. Grabbed her guitar.
Slapped and echoed up the metal ladder, out of her glorified cement bunker, into the empty-stomach rattle of the desert.
Her footprints crumbled in the sand as soon as she shifted her weight. Each breath was dust and dust and air—in that order. Each breath made her lungs curl into fists, ready to fight their way back to some blinked-out mother planet—a place she would never see because it didn’t exist.
Cade swung her guitar case over the line that meant the
end of the Andanan deserts and the beginning of Voidvil. It was a real line—dunes on one side, and, on the other, buildings that shot like dark fingers out of the sand.
Cade didn’t love the deserts of Andana. But she wanted to peel off her own skin and give it a firm shake when she thought about living in Voidvil. It was a human town—really a human trap—a place where people piled on top of each other deep and high in apartment towers crusted with the black of fire escapes.
On the bubbled-tar sidewalks at the edge of town, men and women stared at Cade and her guitar case. Smiles crawled onto their faces. The closer she got to the center of town, the louder the voices grew, the closer skins got to each other, got to her, sweating to close the in-between inch. The lips here smiled too, but the eyes were empty, glassed-and-gone with spacesick.
Cade didn’t have spacesick.
She had something worse than that.
Her destination sat deep in the ground, a blister under nine stories of pressing, smelling, never-stopping human. Cade dropped down a corkscrew of stairs into the wet-stone smell of Club V.
The room wasn’t much when she looked at it. A small stage, set back and painted the shiny black of an insect shell. The space was good for a crowd, but half-crammed with a glass bar that Cade wasn’t old enough to drink at. Four laws governed the humans on Andana and this, of course, was one
of them. Not that she cared. She wasn’t there to fuzz herself. Or fade out. Or meet people, even.
Or meet people, ever.
“You’re late,” said the owner, a nonhuman who liked to tell humans that his name was Mr. Smithjoneswhite. He held a drink, something amberish on the rocks, with one of his long arms. He had six of them, and two legs, spanning out from a central nervous system that was actually central. He could regrow a limb if he had to, in a process that was filled with pus and fascination. Handy in bar fights, too.
“You’re late,” he said again, and Cade wondered if he was trying to start a bar fight, right now, with her.
“I don’t go on for two hours.”
“Be on stage,” he said. “On time.” His accent was thick, like he was slurping the words off a plate. Cade could speak passable Andanan, but he insisted on English. Didn’t want her mangling the mother tongue.
“It’s the setup,” he said, waving one limb at the stage. “Isn’t it? It’s taking you too long. Too much time staring at yourself in the mirror.” It was a low and unoriginal punch. Humans were the only species that used mirrors. Other species knew what they looked like without a bit of glass-and-backing, or had gone past a looks-based understanding of each other.
“Too good to make a bit of talk with me, little girl?” Mr. Smithjoneswhite asked, rattling his slow-melt ice at her.
Cade put her tongue between her teeth, to keep herself from grinding them to white dust.
“Just make sure I get paid.”
She shouldn’t have come back without seeing the money from last week. Of the four laws that Cade and all the humans on Andana had to live with, the first one declared that they weren’t cleared for work. Too weak. Not built for the climate here, and definitely not built for space. So they bartered and black-marketed. It was clear that Cade had a talent, so of course someone like Mr. Smithjoneswhite was willing to step in, fill out the official forms, shuffle a few coins into her hand at the end of the night. But last week had been two sets, three encores, shameless cheering, no coin. And she slithered back. It was a sour move, because it showed Mr. Smithjoneswhite how much she needed this place, needed it more than the money.
“I’ll see you get paid,” he said. “From the drink sales tonight.”
Cade looked up into his face—a blur of features, like it had been stamped by someone with a shaky wrist. “Right,” she said. “For both weeks.”
He tipped the end of his two upper limbs, his version of a nod. Cade swept past, and kept up the stomping and scowling. But for the first time in seven days, she felt something other than pissed off.
Because Cade was at the club for the same reason as every other Saturday. She would wait out the amateur screechgasm of the opening acts, bits of foam tucked into her ears as in- surance against awfulness. She would take the stage, set up her amps and pedals, and give a tender squeeze to the pegs on the neck of her impossible, unscratched, cherry red guitar. The color of a fruit no one had eaten in centuries, and still, it looked delicious.
Turn the volume up. up. up.
Drown the unbelievable noise that crashed through her head.
The Noise was the barrier, the thing that kept Cade from living with other humans. They made so much scurrying, screeching, nattering sound, and when that hit the Noise, pressure changed, and she was sure her brain would start leaking out through her nose.
Cade kicked the metal skeleton of a chair to an isolated backstage spot and sank her head between her hands.
She knew there must have been a time before the Noise, but it was roped off, along with a few glaring, all-white memories of her most primitive years. People in white. White rooms. White lights, clean and sharp as a seven-blade knife. Cade wanted to look at those memories but she didn’t have clearance, even inside her own head. She was stuck with the years of less-than-life that had passed since she’d been dropped at the Parentless Center on Andana.
And she was stuck with the Noise. It wasn’t a clear stream of words or music or even random screeches of sound. It was those things and more—unclear, unwashed, unbearable. There were different strands of it. Frequencies. Sometimes she could pick them out, sometimes she had to cave and crumble.
Cade was a smashed radio, all the stations of the universe pouring in.
The opening acts—Andanans on sand-skin drums, a band with four lead singers, a lone man on a battered trumpet—came an...