Edition 24: Papaya Leaf Falling to the Surface of a Puddle Reflecting Streetlights by Jamie Killen
Dao has the dubious honour of being chosen by a rider, an alien keen to have a human experience. She is not the only one, but is subject to the whim of her rider, a relationship she did not consent to. Jamie Killen’s story won the 2015 Story Quest Competition of Unlikely Partnerships, with her delightful science fiction partnering of an alien and street kid; an usual choice of host. SY
Dao awoke to rain hammering on the tiled roof. She lay in bed watching it fall past her window and into the garden below.
Go out now? Puddle asked. Go out feel rain?
Dao sighed. “Fine. But you’ll have to wait until I eat something.”
Dao’s mother was just laying out a plate of cut fruit when she came out of her room. “Good morning, Mother.”
Puddle made a little chittering sound of excitement at the sight of papaya on the plate.
“Good morning, Dao,” she replied. Then, as always, she pressed her hands together in a wai and lowered her eyes. “Good morning, Lord Puddle.”
Dao tucked the metal braids of her harness behind her ears as she ate. The first few days she hadn’t been able to stop scratching, the weight of the coiling metal ropes and fiber-optic cables within pulling along the edges of her scalp. Now she only noticed if one of them dangled into her food.
Dao’s mother sat down and helped herself to a few pieces of lychee and banana. “Do you have any meetings today?”
“No. The American scientists don’t get here until tomorrow and the Chinese delegation doesn’t meet until Tuesday.” Dao stopped herself from complaining about how boring it was going to be. She wasn’t in the mood to hear a lecture on what a great honor it all was.
“Well, then my Lord must want to go out and spend some time in the rain,” her mother said, glancing out the window.
Yes! Out in rain!
“Yes. You’d think he’d be tired of getting soaked by now.”
Dao’s mother poured some juice. “All the riders love the rain.” She smiled. “Maybe they’re plants.”
Dao shrugged and dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “Maybe. He still won’t tell me.” She kissed her mother on the cheek. “I’ll be back soon.”
Dao put on the stretchy running shorts and sports top she wore when Puddle wanted to go out in the rain. She stepped outside, listening to his cooing and burbling at the touch of water droplets on Dao’s skin. The two soldiers posted to the house today huddled miserably under umbrellas. She gave them an imperious stare as she passed, didn’t acknowledge their salute. Her mother kept saying she was being petty, but Dao knew she would never trust soldiers again.
Dao turned the corner out of her family’s garden and onto Ton Soon Alley, then over to Witthaya Road. She passed the elegant columns and landscaping in front of the Dutch Embassy, smiling at the thought that only a year ago she and her mother had been in a shack in Khlong Toei. Ironically, Puddle had liked that a lot better.
Market! he demanded. Market people more people in the rain!
Dao flagged down a tuk-tuk. The driver pulled over slowly, looking sleepy and annoyed until he spotted the metal braids coiling out of her skull. “Oh, God, I didn’t…This is an honor, my Lord.” He tried to bow and help Dao into the seat at the same time, fumbling at both.
“My Lord Papaya Leaf Falling to the Surface of a Puddle Reflecting Streetlights wishes to be taken to the Chatuchak Market,” Dao said, using the formal tones the fragrant woman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had made her practice before she was allowed to go out in public.
Too fast! Puddle shouted as they pulled away from the curb.
Dao lowered her voice so that the driver couldn’t hear. “Don’t worry, we’re safe.”
Dao turned her face up to the sky, focused on the little metallic glint between some clouds. “You’re way up in the sky. How can you be scared of falling off a little tuk-tuk?”
Not fall. Not fall geosynchronous engineer gravity 2.45584-42…
Dao ignored him as he slid into gibberish. That happened less and less these days, but he still couldn’t translate things about science and technology into anything legible.
“How many of us are there in Bangkok now?” she asked idly as the tuk-tuk swooped in front of a bus and around some pedestrians.
What us what Bangkok?
She sighed. “How many riders on hosts within a…Let’s say a 50 kilometer radius.”
Dao raised an eyebrow. “How many until you’re finished?”
No finished. Many want to become rider. Riders know wonderful things.
The tuk-tuk driver pulled up in front of a cluster of shoppers gathered near the market. Dao stuffed some baht into his hand without counting.
“Thank you, my Lord!” he exclaimed.
“It wasn’t him,” Dao said coolly over her shoulder. “If I left it up to him you wouldn’t get paid at all.”
The rain had tapered off during their trip, and now the streets steamed. Dao caught hints of mango and sweat and meat under the swampy smell that always lingered just a bit no matter where you went in the city. The crowds parted before her, although not as dramatically as they had six months or a year ago. People still stared, whispered, held their hands up in a wai, but no one shrieked or ran away.
Dao caught sight of another host she recognized, a boy named Sanun. He’d shaved the hair beneath his implants so that the gold lay against his bare scalp.
The Hair of the Woman Crossing the Street Before the Green Wall! Puddle exclaimed.
“Hey, Khun Dao, about time you joined the party.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean like a ton of us are here,” he said. “Som Chai and Tukata and Yut. My Lady called them all here to hang out.”
He turned and plowed through the shoppers. Dao followed at a more careful pace.
“What do you want to explore?” she asked.
She glanced around, found the blue silk he had spotted, and dutifully ran her fingers over it.
Watch man with fish.
Dao stood at a respectful distance and watched an elderly man slice and package silvery fish from a bucket of ice.
Dao slowly took Puddle through the market, stopping and looking or touching or smelling whenever he noticed something new. She stopped paying careful attention after a while, just followed his commands.
She thought back to the first day. People had been talking about the silver things in the sky for weeks, hanging over Bangkok and Calcutta and Manila and Jakarta. Some were terrified, certain that an army was about to come pouring out of the ships and destroy their city. Others cackled over the anger of the Western media, blonde talking heads who couldn’t understand why the ships weren’t over New York or Los Angeles. Still others, like Dao, didn’t have time to think about it very much.
She’d been picking through a garbage can on a corner while her mother sold chips a few feet away. She had an aluminum can in her hand when the truck full of soldiers arrived. They jumped out with their guns, and the crowd scattered. One held a camera. He pointed it right at her and spoke into a phone.
“Is this her?” After a moment he nodded. “Confirmed. Take her.”
Dao’s mother managed to grab her wrist before some of the soldiers wrestled her to the ground and stuffed Dao into the back of the truck.
“I haven’t done anything!” Dao shrieked. “I haven’t stolen!”
“You aren’t in trouble,” one of the soldiers finally said when her screaming and kicking at the seat became unbearable. “You’ve been chosen to participate in the First Contact Diplomatic Mission. Fuck knows why, though.” His nose wrinkled at her smell.
“Who chose me?” she asked, sniffling.
The soldier’s eyes flicked up, toward the brim of his helmet and the roof of the truck and the orbiting ship above it. That was the most explanation she got that day.
The demand brought Dao back to the market. She took a rambutan from a seller’s pile and split the hairy red shell, stuffing the flesh in her mouth. She didn’t bother to pay; none of the food sellers took money from riders and hosts anymore.
Gold glinted in the crowd, and Dao caught sight of a group of hosts. There were at least a dozen, more than she’d ever seen in one place. They all stood around the shoe stand, examining different pairs. Most were about her age. The oldest looked fifteen, the youngest perhaps ten.
“Puddle, I have a question.”
“Why’d you all pick street kids?”
Dao wondered, not for the first time, if Puddle lied to her. “What made you pick me?”
She’d asked this before, of course. She’d asked the first time she woke up with the harness, still bleary with anesthesia, before Puddle had had time to learn her language. She’d asked again a week later, when he’d chosen his new name. She’d asked at times when Puddle was excited, and frustrated, and when he made odd requests. He always had a different response, and it never really answered the question.
This time, he said, I look down and I see you and I feel love.
Sanun held up a pair of white Nikes as she approached the group. “I’m taking these.”
He turned away from the stand.
“Sir,” the man behind the stall said nervously, “my Lord, I apologize, but these shoes are expensive. This isn’t a piece of candy or a banana.”
Sanun whipped around, squaring his skinny little shoulders. “What the fuck did you say to me? How dare you talk back to a rider?”
“Sanun—” Dao began.
“Sir, if I may,” the man said, holding his hands up in a placating gesture. “Don’t you receive a government stipend? I’m sure you can pay a poor shoe seller.”
Sanun paused and looked skyward. “What’s that?” He smiled thinly at the man. “My Lady The Hair of the Woman Crossing the Street Before the Green Wall says she wishes to see something new. Something bright red.”
He pulled a gun from the waistband of his shorts. Dao reached for his arm, and it seemed that time had slowed down because it took so very long for her hand to get there. The shots cut through the market, and the white shirt on the man’s chest burst into a fountain of deep red blood, and the crowd recoiled like it was a single living thing. Dao’s ears rang with screams, and she couldn’t tell if it was her or Puddle or both.
Then someone else was shouting. “Stop! Freeze!”
A young soldier, one of the ones who trailed them all over town. He stood on the edge of the market, his rifle trained on Sanun.
No one actually saw the beam. No one ever did. All anyone ever saw was the aftermath less than a second later, a hole three inches across, drilling into the top of someone’s head and through their body from above. The soldier dropped to the ground without a sound, the top of his head tipping forward so that Dao could see the tunnel extending down into his neck and beyond.
Sanun wandered over and spat next to the soldier’s body. “Idiot,” he said. He took his time returning to the shoe stand.
“Hm,” he said at last, although Dao could barely hear through the people shouting around them. “I guess my Lady likes the orange ones better.” He plucked the shoes off the table.
As Sanun turned away, his eyes locked with Dao’s. “Lighten the fuck up, Dao. We’ve got diplomatic immunity. Might as well use it.”
Dao didn’t know how long she stared at the soldier’s body. At some point she realized that another host, Tukata, was saying something, shaking her arm. “Let’s go, Dao, before the reporters get here.”
“Why?” she breathed, letting Tukata tug her along.
“He’s fucking cracked. Or at least his rider is. She’s…” Tukata got a distant look, and Dao knew she was listening to her rider. “They’re like the loop that goes on forever and gets bigger and bigger? I don’t know what that means.”
The man, the man is hurt the man is dead dead is ugly, Puddle wailed. Dao wondered how long he had been talking.
“Was it true, what Sanun said?” She and Tukata pushed their way between a pair of rushing, screaming women. “Did his rider tell him to do it?”
The Hair of the Woman Crossing the Street Before the Green Wall likes other sights that I don’t like.
Dao fell, dragging Tukata half down with her. Her knee hit the pavement, and Puddle whimpered, and she bared her teeth at the little victory. She grabbed her hair and pulled, ripping strands out by the roots.
Stop, you hurt!
“Answer me, Puddle,” she whispered, so low that even Tukata wouldn’t be able to hear. “Why?”
We look down from sky and we see and we feel love. I look down and see a girl who watches the people and eats papaya. The one who becomes The Hair of the Woman Crossing the Street Before the Green Wall sees a boy who knows other things.
“Can’t you do something?” Dao, still on her hands and knees, looked up at the sky. “Can’t you do something to her, up there in that ship?”
Puddle was silent for a long moment; usually, even when he didn’t speak, he made little sounds and rumbles. Finally: On ship…Many same as her. Cannot.
Dao said nothing in reply. She let Tukata lead her away from the market and then walked stiffly away on her own, doing nothing to stop the bleeding from her knee.
Go now to temple and smell the incense? Puddle asked, timid.
“Yes, my Lord,” Dao replied flatly. “I live to serve the First Contact Diplomatic Mission.”
They walked down the middle of the sidewalk, through the dense Bangkok crowds. As always, they parted before her; now, though, they left the smell of fear behind.
Jamie Killen’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming from numerous publications including Mythic Delirium, Space and Time, and Heiresses of Russ 2013. She lives in Arizona with several other monsters and blogs at jamieskillen.wordpress.com.