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In his early days in slivermoon, Saki worked the phone lines.

Companies in slivermoon stressed in prestige magazines and press releases that it was too hard for them to employ bodies. Bodies were expensive to sustain. Bodies needed food, warmth, and shelter. The market was not what it used to be, and labor laws tied the hands of employers. Having a body in this economy was like throwing a fight before it even began.

Bodies were a ticket to starvation. Ghosts, however, were mouthless visitors at an endless buffet.

J. B Laks Electronics and Elektronics employed bodiless immigrants by the hundreds every month. The turnover rate was sky-high. Saki realized why after his second shift: not everyone was built for this job. Moonies would call to report problems in their appliances—a coughing laundry box or a wheezing cooling rig—and some pretty young admin would pick up the phone and say, Just a minute, I’m patching our technician in. This was Saki’s cue to fold himself as small as he could get. His first few shifts, the phantom memory of flesh and muscle hung onto Saki like grease from a fatty meal, refuting his intentions to pack his whole being into a mote of shivering light. He contorted in weightless frustration in the Training Bay under the watchful eye of the human resources moonie. This HR moonie encouraged him with words like Sah-kee, you’re valued, and Sah-kee, I appreciate your bias for action. She snapped her fingers every time he approximated a Platonic solid. His phantom joints popped. His bones broke, and blood filled his lungs. He drowned a thousand times on the clean carpet he could not feel or smell.

Unlearn, the HR moonie instructed gently, her lambent eyes equal parts sternness and concern. You do not have a body anymore, Sah-kee. Unlearn your biases.

By the fifth shift, Saki had got the hang of it.

The job was easy enough. Millions of glistening, silvery wires ran from the hundred-storeyed central atrium of J. B Laks, a vast spiderweb of pulsing light that connected every Laks appliance in slivermoon to the hub. Whenever an abacus sneezed or a fevered coffee percolator spat out mucosal steam, the pretty young admin moonie would patch Saki into the appropriate port. From there it was a direct trip to the customer’s deck and back: Saki assessed the situation, keyed in the appropriate chatbot response on the company’s virtual forum, and asked for feedback. Sometimes the customers got frustrated at him. “Can I talk to a human?” they fumed. For these cases, Saki’s manual instructed him, he was supposed to queue a chatbot response that assured the customers that they were indeed speaking to a trusted service partner, a human, even if they weren’t visible.

This didn’t always work.

“You’re from darkworld, aren’t you?” some customers raged. “You don’t fool me. I know from your accent. I want to talk to a moonie, I don’t want to speak to no illiterate—”

These always made Saki smile because he wasn’t in the darkworld anymore. Half the time, he was in their homes, flitting invisible through panels and circuits. Their ghost, in their machines. They could rave and rage all they wanted, but Saki was already in slivermoon. He was an employee at the J. B Laks Central Servicing Hub. Sure there were no photos of him, no records or prints or biometrics to prove he lived here. Corporate policy. But they paid him in company-favor, a steady trickle of points that accumulated in his employee card with satisfying regularity. He even slept at the office, in a conference room with all the other working ghosts. At first, he’d try to arrive early to find a spot where no one could pile on top of him. All the unlearning in the world couldn’t curb his phobia of being stampeded by ghostly limbs, or buried under an avalanche of torsos the way it happened in train stations back in the darkworld. But eventually, Saki learned that his new form was untethered to gravity. He could sleep upside down if he wished. A single blade of the ceiling fan could cradle him in slumber.

In slivermoon, where there was no space for those like him, even the rusty curve of a moth-harassed lampshade was comfort.

 


 

Before smuggling himself into slivermoon, Saki had worked in a small square room in a small square box that held a chunky monitor and two round buttons.

One button was red, the other green. Onscreen, he watched people kill each other, or maim each other, or push each other into the maws of spinning machines. He watched heads explode like watermelons and blood blossoming on concrete like hibiscus blooms. His task was simple: if it was violent enough to make him sweat under the tundra-like conditions of the air-conditioning, he pressed green. If not, he pressed red. By doing this, he was teaching a moonie robot to understand what was taboo, what transgressive, and what transcendental.

The robot spoke to him in accented moonspeak after each choice he made.

“Thank you, Saki,” it said. “You make me better every day.”

To this, Saki replied, “Thank you, robot. Your betterment is my command.”

After ten videos, the robot would wipe the screen blank, and show him five pictures of cats. This was, it told him, to optimize Saki’s performance. Saki was lucky because not everyone in the data processing center got cats. Some of his co-workers got glimmering, terrifyingly neat vistas of slivermoon. Most of them got women.

The robot had only a limited number of cat pictures available, and Saki grew to recognize them when each one came back around in rotation. There was one with a small bald spot and a clipped ear that was Saki’s favorite. He named this cat Chandni because it was white like the moon.

“Robot,” he asked once, “where is this cat now?”

“I am sorry, Saki,” the robot replied. “I cannot understand your moonspeak accent. Could you repeat?”

But repeating anything for the robot was frustrating even to the most Sisyphean of candidates. It was endlessly patient and infinitely unchanging in its refusal to understand darkworlders. Saki gave up immediately. The chances were that the cat was already in slivermoon.

Lucky, lucky puss.

When she came up on the screen, Saki imagined that she was sleeping in some cozy puddle of darkness in a nameless slivermoon alley, her stomach glutted with the leavings of fish and feed that some kind, pure moonies offered her in shining silver bowls.

O Chandni, he thought, as he pressed the green button on a child gurgling in a bloated river, green on a man impaled on a windshield wiper, green on woman after woman after dead woman. O Chandni—you and I, we both live under the same moon. Yet there you are. And here I am.

Saki hadn’t always dreamed of going to slivermoon. It was Anjun who put the idea into his head. Anjun, who worked three night shifts a week at the same office, pressing the same buttons that taught a robot the meaning of violence. Anjun, who drove a third-hand motorbike and ate the same lunch of rice, lentils, and bramble berry pickle every afternoon. Anjun, who got neither cats nor women but men—always men, he told Saki secretly one day. Men who look like you.

Anjun had a wonky emoji tattooed on his hand. Anjun stole printer paper, tea sachets, and notepads from the office and told everyone that one day he was going to buy a flat in Palladium Pearl, that one with the infinity pool. Anjun would go to slivermoon, he said. He would become someone. You wait and watch.

Anjun was a rogue planet. Saki fell into his pull like a lonely moon. Anjun developed a personal stake in Saki’s fortunes over a healthy period of Saki sucking his dick. In their one-bed-hallway-kitchen flat, which they shared with four other guys, Anjun woke Saki up to make him look at brochures of slivermoon. They oohed at the neatness of slivermoon, the way all its streets were organized in such efficient grids. They aahed at the massive shopping complexes and the wide city squares where moonies ate and danced and laughed. They gaped at marketing images of smiling moonies in the light of the chewing tobacco billboard that blazed outside their window, and the weight of their dreams grew, nourished by that light, watered by their ambition until it became a physical thing suffocating their every conversation.

In the darkworld, Anjun said, they would never grow out of the data center, never stop teaching the robots violence, and never be able to have a life together. In slivermoon, every year would see them move up, get better, get a house, get a cat. Yes, even that cat: even Chandni.

Saki couldn’t bear to think of Chandni. To that squashed face and clipped ear, he had twined his most audacious thoughts, his most impossible dreams.

Anjun made him practice moonspeak on an app that bullied him night and day if Saki missed checking in. They found shops in shady streets that claimed to serve authentic moonie food, washing it down with unauthentic cheap moonshine. They practiced becoming invisible. Saki rolled his tongue to capture that moonie accent until it felt alien in his mouth, a trespasser in his own body. If he cut it out, he imagined, it would wriggle its way into slivermoon, singing siren songs about Home Appliances or Mega Discount Sales.

 


 

In two years, they’d saved up enough to pay a guy who smuggled groups into slivermoon.

The guy put them on a cramped plane from where Saki saw an aerial vision of slivermoon so moreish and light-drenched that it sizzled the humor straight out of his eyes. Here were the veins of the city, there its skyscrapers. Here the spinning, twisting, spiraling colonnades of adverts upon adverts, jostling for space among classifieds and celebrities. Closer to slivermoon, if he squinted exactly right, Saki could even pick up moonflow: that ever-present, auto-refreshing info-stream full of moonies dreaming, or singing, or winking, or dancing.

One moonie’s cosplay as a darkworld ghost had hit the top of the charts. She lay very still on the ground and made a mmmmm noise while people walked over her. That mmmmm sound played over and over in multiple copycat flows, hundreds and thousands of them. Even the choked whirring of the plane’s descent could not save Saki from that mmmmm.

The plane landed in a dark field outside of slivermoon. A truck took them to the borders and left them there. At the borders, dark, twisting alleys made a maze beyond which the kaleidoscopic light of slivermoon shone like an impossible mirage. Before it, a dithering queue of immigrants stretched in a spiral that expanded and contracted with the accumulated weight of their nervous anticipation.

“Well,” said Anjun. “See you, then. Remember our plan.”

Saki felt a thrill of terror. “Anjun, wait—”

“Work hard,” said Anjun. “Don’t slack off. You have to want it, Saki. You need to hustle. You’ve heard them all say it: slivermoon rewards those who hustle. I’ll see you when we have bodies again.”

“Anjun—”

But Anjun had disappeared into that heaving, slow-moving tangle of people. Saki could see his elbows, pushing past those who were fighting desperate second thoughts. Anjun had no second thoughts. Saki watched him vanish through a maze gate, never looking back once.

The queue thinned. Saki walked the maze of alleys without nearing the gates, which exhaled a scent that reminded Saki of houseflies when you zapped them with an electric bat. Saki pressed moons into the soft flesh of his palm, trying to commit his body to memory. Here a skin tag, there the scar from the burn of a hot ladle. His elbows, which he hated. His noodly arms, which he loved. In his curling hair, the hands of many a lover had tangled, pulled. How many times had he stood lost in front of a mirror, swimming in too-big T-shirts, hating the shape of this flesh he was tied to?

But now, the thought of leaving it behind sent shivers all up and down his extremities.

An old man stood by the gates, mumbling. “I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t. I should go back, I don’t need—”

The guards were losing patience. Saki watched them exchange glances, watched one leave his perch atop the walls.

“Come through or go home,” the guard called. “This is slivermoon. We have no time to waste.”

“I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t,” the old man said again. Then: “No, don’t!”

The guard yanked the man by the sleeve. That smell again: like burnt insects. The man’s body crumpled to the ground.

Saki watched the guard rummage in the old man’s pockets for the bribe that would have helped him cross.

Something came unmoored in Saki and he ran.

He stumbled on other bodies as he passed—bodies of darkworlders who had come before him, forsaken in piles at the border in warm pools of urine and cola. An unworldly terror rattled through him like a haunting. Being a ghost meant being nameless, faceless, and figureless. He’d work odd jobs in slivermoon until he saved enough to earn a body back. What would slivermoon do with his actual body?

Maybe, some other man in some other darkworld center would press a green button on a video of Saki’s abandoned body traveling a conveyor, towards a lamprey mouth of high-velocity blades.

I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, he thought. But if not this, what? What was back home in the darkworld for him? Just more robots, more violence. No Palladium Pearl. No Anjun. No Chandni.

“Name?” a guard asked when he eventually presented himself trembling at a gate. “Fee?”

“Saki,” he said, pushing his tithe forward. “Will it hurt?”

“Nah,” said the guard, her moonie eyes big as saucers. “Just a little zap. Welcome to slivermoon.”

 


 

Those who smuggled themselves into slivermoon did not stay forever as ghosts.

Sure, there were jobs when you were non-corporeal, but there were even more jobs when you were something small yet physical. A few Fingers. A solid Hand. Button pushers and image labelers were always in demand. Mouths, too—every city had jobs for willing Mouths. And while ghosts claimed no space, Fingers or Mouths still needed little.

In slivermoon—beautiful slivermoon—Saki missed his body more than he thought he would. A ghost could curl up in the petal of a plastic flower, or walk in careful silence through moonie-only parks, or slip into moonflow hours without a data charge. In slivermoon—beautiful slivermoon—every house was a haunted house, every street a haunted street. The quieter and more invisible you became, the more the moonies looked the other way. A ghost could run its fingers legato on the marble banisters of the dance halls and never leave a smear. A ghost could streak through fountains and temporarily make a moving advert stutter. A ghost could fold into the shape of a paper plane and launch itself from the J. B Laks building, riding thermals until it landed weightlessly on a roof across the city.

But a ghost could not talk, and could not feel. It could see, but through a hoary gauze of white, like looking through ice. It could hear, but distantly, as if underwater. Other ghosts in the moonflow called this the Free experience. Having a body in slivermoon was considered Premium.

Occasionally, the wires at J. B Laks sparked and glitched, and for a second the city became clear in a screaming rush of heat and color. This was an extraordinarily frightening experience. Saki and the other ghosts would fall out of the wires, spiraling uncontrolled to the ground, while Fingers in the maintenance department rushed to retrieve them. In those few moments, through some malefic magic, Saki could smell and taste. While the Retrievers worked, he would think of mutton-leg soup and a soft blanket, or a lover’s hand caressing his thigh.

The glitch happened at least twice every month. Once, seven months into his employment, the Fingers that retrieved him were a familiar shape. Saki spun against them, a forlorn firefly, and saw through his glitched-out gaze the wonky shape of a familiar emoji tattoo.

Anjun, he thought, but then the wires were working again, and a customer was screaming at Saki about his malicious icer-cooler. The Fingers let go of Saki like he was a solitary grain of rice, a speck of glistening nothing, best sifted off the hands.

So Anjun had bought himself some Fingers already.

Some small, romantic part of Saki’s mind wondered if Anjun had scratched that tattoo there so Saki could find him. Why else that wonky emoji? What were the odds that out of the thousands of ghosts in this city, his Fingers were the ones who retrieved Saki?

They must be destined lovers. They must be fated for wonderful things.

Saki would work hard, and he would buy his body back, and he would find Anjun, and they would find a cat just like Chandni.

Then they could be happy in slivermoon. They could live the dream.

 


 

Saki’s company-favor points sat untouched on his employee card. Whenever he patched into moonflow he was bombarded with targeted adverts on how he should spend it.

Favor points came from four different streams: company, customer, citizen, and city. Occasional customers tipped Saki in points but—barring one memorable incident where the city gave him a favor for reporting an advert glitch—the lion’s share of his points came directly from J. B Laks. Some ghosts converted favor points to actual money, wiring them home to darkworld families that depended on them. Some ghosts gambled on moonflow stars, tying their fates to the rise and fall of slivermoon celebrities.

But most ghosts bought favor tickets.

Favor tickets were purchased from the info plaza within the moonflow. With favor tickets, you could enter Luck Favors You, slivermoon’s loot box lottery. Thirty company-favor points bought one favor ticket. Ten favor tickets purchased a Golden Favor, which got you a random item from a four-star rarity pool. With ninety favor tickets, you could guarantee yourself a Platinum Favor, which gave you a five-star rarity item. Fingers and Mouths were four stars, although Anjun must have had great luck to get a full set of ten. Customizable Skin, however, was a five-star. That was either incredible luck or a windfall of favor.

Saki had not bought favor tickets for himself yet. The loot boxes were divided into two pools, a standard and a moonie-specific one. Some ghosts hoarded until they had enough tickets to pull a five-star on the moonie lottery. In the moonie lottery were moonie Skin, Wings, and Lips. Bodies in the latest moonie trends, primed and polished and ready for some lottery whale to spend big money on. But it wasn’t fashion that drove the ghosts: many did it because looking moonie was the only way to guarantee a quality life in slivermoon. Other ghosts protested this: the moonie pool had caps on what was available, with the rarest of Bodies and Skins going out of stock seconds after every monthly launch. A surge in immigrants buying favor tickets in the moonie lottery meant fewer items available for the moonies who wished to keep up with trends. Sometimes, in retaliation, the plaza managers raised the ticket prices for the standard pool.

But Saki wasn’t hoarding to pull from the moonie lottery. He had heard of ghosts who pulled too early, with too few favor tickets, and got themselves stuck with a Stomach. A Stomach meant hunger. A Stomach was hard to employ. Sustaining a Stomach until you could amass more company-favor just made things so much harder.

Besides, just a Stomach was ugly.

No, Saki would wait until he had enough for a guaranteed Platinum. Then he could have something of his choice—something of true market value like Hands, or his Mouth. He could become a cook or an embroiderer. Embroidery sounded so pretty to him, so delicate, better than phone lines.

In the darkworld, beneath the light of that chewing tobacco billboard, Anjun had made them both a vision board. Here’s what to get from the housing pool, the lifestyle pool, the companion pool. Here’s what they could do to make the wide avenues and open courtyards of slivermoon their home, make sure they were respected, make it so they were real.

If you weren’t teaching the moonie robot, who would you be? Anjun asked as they worked, their patchwork collages a dazzle of custom Parts.

This question surprised Saki. He supposed as a child he might have harboured thoughts of being something, becoming someone. A cook. An embroiderer. The people who perched atop floodlit ladders to paint the hair of the people on the chewing tobacco billboard.

But those were stray thoughts, thoughts like minnows flickering along the stream of a child’s consciousness. No one in darkworld had time for minnows. There was just a march of hungry days that became a landslide, a ravenous scramble that somehow ended with you in the small square room with the moonie robot. No one planned for that kind of job. There was no want. It just fell upon you like bad weather.

This kind of thinking is why most of the moonie-robot workers will never afford Palladium Pearl, Anjun scoffed, when Saki told him.

Maybe that was true. But then most of the darkworld did not know, or think, about Palladium Pearl at all, focused as they were on getting at least the robot job. Back then, Saki had felt a wave of pity for Anjun for not knowing that. It was like watching someone stand under a torrential downpour, dripping wet, claiming that if they just believed it enough, the rain couldn’t touch them.

Bad weather.

 


 

A year after he smuggled himself into slivermoon, Saki was fired from the call center job.

J. B Laks’s employee filtering algorithms felt he was too much of an outlier on their attrition graphs. Too cautious, the HR moonie told him sadly. Too conscientious. It threw off your Passion Delivers Value score.

For a while, Saki wandered hopelessly through slivermoon’s streets, thankful that at least he could fit through keyholes or under stoves or in the crevices of a rotting park bench. For a while he was a sewer-sprite, zipping through the maze of slivermoon plumbing to locate the cause of blockages. He left that claustrophobic, low-pay fuckjob to work in a medical facility, where he located more blockages, this time by rooting around in moonie innards. Then, while carousing the moonflow, he chanced upon a classified asking for the discreet service of a ghost.

Working as a spy was nothing like working at J. B Laks. There was no more regular company-favor, but moonies frequently needed a spy to tattle about the Fingers and Hands and Mouths that worked for them. Once, Saki’s spying evacuated a whole family of unlucky Torsos that had illegally occupied a moonie flat. Guilt licked his thoughts smooth for a few days, but the city rewarded him with a windfall of favor points.

He never counted just how much was on his card but slowly, Saki was starting to get excited.

He began to spend time on a body simulator in the moonflow, mixing and matching parts into something that best fit his vision. He would keep his curly hair. He would customize his skin without the acne marks of a tragic teenage skincare routine, but with the buckle-shaped scar he’d got from jumping off a bad boy’s motorbike. When he thought about it long enough, the memory of his body unfurled in a stunning feat of cartography: here a smattering of stretch marks, there an asymmetrical eyelid. Some things he would change. That pain in his spine, once ever-present and ever-annoying—he would incise that out of his life. Give his jaw a softer curve, gentle like the moon. His cheeks could be fuller, or his chest.

It niggled at him that Anjun might not like that. But Anjun was only a set of Fingers. What opinions could a man have without his Mouth?

The spy business caught on. As his city-favor went up, Saki’s moonflow began to get more visitors. More visitors meant more jobs, more jobs meant more favor. Saki began to see more of slivermoon: its kaleidoscopic night streets and thriving meat markets, the boutique body tailoring studios where the appetite for darkworld flesh never sated. He found most of his customers in the spiraling skyscrapers and glistening gambling parlors—thieving, avarice-prone, deceitful moonies, as imperfect and baffling as any darkworlders.

Fifteen months after he had smuggled himself into slivermoon, Saki was squeezing through the pipes of an embezzler moonie’s home when the hum of an incoming moonflow message vibrated through his form.

<Saki?> this message said. <Meet me.>

There was an address: a moonie quarter near a beach, not too far from where he was.

There was no name above the address and no identifying information about the sender of the message, but Saki knew it was Anjun. He knew even as he watched the embezzler moonie flutter through her house, worrying at a yarn fidgeter. The message burned itself in neon in Saki’s moonflow and he blinked to go flow-dark, but couldn’t; like a child picking at a scab, he came back repeatedly to those words.

<Saki? Meet me.>

He left the embezzler moonie’s house. In the moonflow, favor ticket adverts jostled each other for his attention. He could try his luck, Saki thought. He could buy a Golden Favor, just a ten-pull’s worth, and hope that he got Thumbs or Tongues or Teeth. Something to show Anjun that he had hustled.

A reckless part of Saki even wondered what it would be like to blow all his favor on a Platinum. A full set of Hands to hold Anjun’s—wouldn’t that be impressive?

But that would cost him his job. And what if he pulled a Stomach or an entire Skeletal System? Were systems even part of the standard pool?

Moonies could pull them: change their statures or their height, wear designer blood. Saki had seen blue-blooded moonies and their custom makeup flows. But maintenance was tough on items like that, and he barely got by as it was.

Saki arrived at the address with all his favor points still intact.

The moonie neighborhood by the beach was quiet and maniacally clean. Trees wept copious flowers in a nacreous shade. To one side, the sea glowered an ugly phosphorescence, lit by a pale moon that pockmarked the sky like a rusted sickle. In its dappled bleed was a house, curved and shell-shaped, like the most fashionable of moonie decks.

Saki said: <Anjun?>

A few seconds. Then: <Saki. Are you here?>

The entrance to the house revealed itself smoothly, like the lip of an oyster. The dark shape of a door sat within that lip, more a square of chocolate than a pearl.

The door opened and out walked Anjun.

Dull shock rattled Saki’s mind. For a second he went flow-dark, the thrill of seeing Anjun eclipsing everything else.

When he’d recovered, Saki keyed into the moonflow: <how?>

Anjun squinted. He said, in a voice much deeper than what Saki remembered: “Saki. Why don’t you come into my house?”

 


 

Anjun walked on two legs. He crossed two arms. He had made changes to his face: no more a beaky nose or a boyish chin—now all of him was sharp, honed, chiseled. His Neck met Torso, met Hips, met Thighs. He wore moonie clothes and spoke with a moonie Mouth, the Lips of which curved like exotic boats when he smiled.

But most disarming of all were his Eyes.

They peered from his face in a rare mudshade, made viral by a celebrity a few months ago. Saki had seen when the Mudshade Eyes had debuted on the moonie lottery. Only fifteen had ever been made available.

Anjun lived in a moonie house with blurry pink furniture and a blurry white carpet. He sat on a chaise lounge. His physical figure was dizzying.

“Isn’t this great?” Anjun asked.

Saki wasn’t sure what this implied: the house, the Nose, the Mouth. He was nursing a mental image of his hands unpeeling Anjun’s Mouth like a satsuma. “It took me a while to build up to it.”

At the very edge of his awareness, a lottery advert poked Saki tantalizingly.

Anjun seemed to be waiting for him to react. Saki said: <You have done well.>

“You don’t know how it feels,” said Anjun. “The first taste of food after you win a Tongue. The flavors in moonie dishes. I don’t think I did anything but eat for five days. The juice from a frilly steak … You don’t know what that is but—sorry, but where are you?”

<I’m by the lampshade.>

Anjun waved that flow away. “Have you seen the latest lottery banner?” he asked. “Moonlight Romance. It’s a full-body moonie Skin. That’s what I’m going for next. Not that there’s any guarantee I’ll pull it, the loot boxes are so fucking rigged. These Eyes alone took me six Platinum pulls. But once I get the Moonlight I think I’m truly done with the lottery for a bit, yeah? I think I’m going to shift my focus to social currency. There’s a guy I know, who knows this guy, and that guy says he can find a guy to get me a job at a real moonie office. Where the food’s free and there’s actual moonie money passing hands, not favor points. He says I look good enough to hire. Moonie enough. His words.”

A lamp in the form of a sea urchin expelled copious steam behind Anjun. Anjun leaned his face into it, and Saki watched in fascination as a flush rippled through Anjun’s lips and plumped the skin pink around his nose.

<You look good,> said Saki, because it sounded like what Anjun wanted him to say.

Anjun beamed. “What did I tell you at the border? We need to hustle if you ever want to make it in slivermoon. Passion delivers value here. You know what—where are you?”

<I’m by the sea-urchin,> said Saki.

“Wait,” said Anjun. “I have an idea.”

He disappeared through an arched-shell door. Saki looked up Moonlight Romance while he was gone. The skin on the banner model shimmered like the moon itself, and she grinned at the camera with her mudshade gaze. Saki tried to do the calculations on how many favor points Anjun needed to pull six Platinum guarantees. The number hovered at the edge of his mind, a dazzling figure.

Anjun came back. In his arms was a moonie doll: a large, pliant thing made of vat skin and smooth foam. It flopped in his arms as he arranged it on the sofa. The doll’s eyes seemed to gape at Saki, void holes wide and light-sucking. It was a J. B Laks product, an elektronic which could be programmed to speak and move. As a company-mote, Saki had serviced many moonies who had used the doll for activities that damaged its circuitry.

Anjun maneuvered the doll’s neck until it acquiesced to his demands, wilting like a hothouse flower in his general direction.

“There,” he said. “It’s my sim-doll. I try on modifications I see in the plaza on it. Sometimes for me, sometimes what I’d imagine you’d like.”

The doll’s mouth was a lush thing, pillowy and unable to close.

“What I mean is,” Anjun said, “I didn’t forget you, Saki. If the doll’s here, I feel like I’m looking at you.”

Saki sat atop the doll. It swallowed him in its arms like quicksand.

<How>, he keyed into the flow, and Anjun frowned.

“What do you mean how? The doll looks just like y—oh. No, you mean a more general how. How did I get here? Well, that’s a long story. And that’s not why we’re here. My moonie friend Soscha, he spoke to some other guy who employed you once. Got you to spy on some Torso squatters ...?”

<Yes. I remember.>

Well, he’s the one who told me there was this ghost, you see, all discreet and stuff? I was so surprised that it was you!”

Saki shrunk himself into the doll’s left eye. <You need a ghost?>

“Our old ghost got tired of the bodiless life. He’s a burly Hands now, working for a gambling house.” Anjun stretched. His back popped, an array of clicks, and Saki caught himself lusting for that feeling. That comfort-discomfort of muscles moving, joints cracking low thunder. “I’m so thrilled I’ve found you, Saki. Now I can help you.”

Saki considered.

Help felt to him a strange word, loaded with implications that made him feel glitched-out. He said: <It’s not that I’m stuck like this. I have all my favor saved. I haven’t used any.>

“That’s good, that’s good,” Anjun mumbled, looking the sim-doll straight in the eye. “It means you’re playing the game right. The more you save the more chances you get exactly what you want from the loot boxes. But there’s a better way. The way Soscha and I and all my other guys have been doing it. We can teach you to become a whale, Saki. Pull every limited Platinum you want. Pull in those goddamn moonie pools. You want Moonlight Romance? You want Tangerine Sunrise? You want glumshade eyes or moonie lips or whatever it is that you can see yourself in?”

<I want Hands,> said Saki. <I want my Hair. And I want a cat.>

Anjun stared at the doll as if this weak approach was exactly what was keeping Saki pliable enough to stamp under his shoe. “I want you to love it in slivermoon, Saki,” he said. “I want us to have a future here. You must dream bigger.”

Saki waited for the pang of disappointing Anjun to fill him up like acrid smoke but nothing came. Perhaps it was the sea-urchin lamp, clarifying the air.

“Let me give you a little taste of what I mean,” Anjun said. A tinkling of citizen favor pinged Saki’s card: enough for two Platinums, more than what Saki would’ve made in a year. “Uh-huh—but don’t pull your Favor yet. I need you just like this for the job. Okay?”

<Okay.>

In the moonflow plaza, they were announcing a new limited banner. Tangerine Sunrise. The model wearing the skin gleamed an orange that invited teeth.

If someone bit into her, Saki thought, she would taste like the sweetest thing on earth.

 


 

They waited two days in the strange shell-house.

Saki hid in the eye of the doll and watched as people came and went, each of them an uncanny composite of dewy Skin and luminous Lashes and Hair in shades Saki couldn’t name. They spoke fast about timings, about payouts, about whether they could trust Saki.

“Leave that to me,” Anjun said, confidently. “He’s my boy. He’ll do what I say.”

On the third day, Anjun took him to J. B Laks.

The Central Servicing Hub was just as Saki remembered: a diamantine spider, casting brilliant webs of light that spun out from it and vanished into slivermoon’s homes and offices. Firefly motes slivered through the webs every so often: technicians, like Saki had once been.

Freed from the surreality of shell-house, Anjun’s physicality was a strange and lumbering thing. “Your job is easy,” he said. “Up there—that nexus of wires. You see the thing that multiplexes all those little webby lines?”

<The node.>

“Right,” Anjun said, “I forgot you worked for them. The node and those are its branches, and those are the leaves—right? I just need you to go to the node, find it on the flow, and sing it a little song. Here, I’m sending you the song now.”

Something slipped through the flow and into Saki’s mind. Saki started to poke at it and found it guarded by a wall.

“Don’t fiddle with it until you get up there.”

<But what is it?>

“I don’t know. Soscha tells me to do this, I do it. He calls the shots. I’m just the guy that follows him. Right now, Saks, you’re just the guy who follows me. Okay?”

Anjun kept speaking to the doll. It sat by his feet, propped up against the sidewalk. Its feet were dirty.

<Not a problem,> Saki said. <But after this—can I make some pulls?>

“Yeah, of course,” Anjun said. “And Saki, man, even if you pull a Stomach, I’m going to be here, right? You do this, I take care of you. You do this, we’ve made it in slivermoon, Saks.”

With Anjun around, walking and talking and dragging the sim-doll along like a spent lover, Saki found it harder and harder to ignore the plaza banner adverts. The model for Tangerine Sunrise threw herself into a pool of citrus fruit that burst on impact, coating the flow temporarily in bright orange. She stood, floated to Saki, and whispered: you want this, Saki. You want it. You have more than enough in your card to guarantee that you own me. So OWN ME.

Saki pushed her away. He was climbing now, letting himself float towards that node, leaving Anjun and the doll further and further behind.

You should own me, Saki, the advert said. It must be a high-intent one. The plaza targeted customers based on propensity to purchase; Saki’s propensity must never have been as high as it was now. Orange dripped from the woman and coiled in tendrils towards him, becoming and unbecoming a spiraling mandarin peel—Saki tried, hastily, to unsubscribe, but the ad was blocking half his vision, and he couldn’t figure out how to close it.

Go away, he thought frantically. Go away, go away. End task.

In the flow, Anjun said: <You’re going to kill this, Saks.>

Saki reached the node. Around him, the wires of J. B Laks spun and stretched, glittering thread in a fairytale loom. One prick could change your fate.

That walled box in his flow—the song that Anjun wanted him to sing the node—Saki nudged off the ad and brought that into his vision instead. GL1TcH, it was called. Unoriginal. Childish. Anjun must’ve named it.

<Slowly now,> Anjun told him. <Slow and steady now, Saks.>

Saki fed the box a password. He saw it open in the flow, blooming wide like a spider lily.

A song came out of it. An mmmmm like that chart-topping cosplayer moonie. The node pulsed gold once again, and black. That bright spiderweb around Saki, those motes of light—they heard the song and shivered, the brightness dimming, dimming, blinking out.

For a moment, nothing.

Then a sudden shudder—a dizzying clarity. The city, screaming in a rush of heat and color.

The Laks Glitch.

Saki reeled away from the node. In his flow, Anjun was celebrating. Soscha—Anjun’s guy—sent Saki a sudden tumble of points, a sticker of a champagne bottle. <Redeemable for five hundred favor tickets,> it fizzed. <Congratulations!>

Saki floated down. Around him, the glitch was causing ghosts to drop out of the wires. Saki could see them in faint outlines of blue, drifting to the ground like glistening snow.

“Quick,” Anjun said, as Saki reached him. “Quick, before the Retrievers come. The ghosts get all scrambled when this happens. We just need to nudge into their flow a bit, take the favor points.”

Saki hung, frozen. He tried to register the meaning of what Anjun was saying, was starting to register, but it kept wisping away from him like spray confetti.

“Saki,” Anjun said. “You can do it faster than me, you’re non-corporeal. Just break into their flow, swipe the favor—the glitch fries slivermoon’s city security.”

<Stealing from ghosts,> Saki keyed. <You’re stealing from ghosts?>

“We’re taking advantage of a glitch in the system. That’s the hustle, Saks.”

<But you could’ve stolen from people like us. Like me. That time when you—>

“But I let you go, didn’t I?” Anjun said. Impatience, on his new face, looked like a panther raring to rip apart its prey. “You remember. I let you go. I want a life for us—this is how we make that life happen. Come on, Saki, there’s only minutes before the Retrievers get here. Move. Move.

Ghosts were floating down all around them. Saki thought of them standing in that training room in front of the HR moonie, folding their phantom bodies into smaller and smaller shapes until they were but a mote of light. Until they evanesced into nothing but a point, a dot that took no space and made no sound. Saki thought of the glitches when he worked at J. B Laks, that sudden smell of fried food, that reminder that he was nothing in slivermoon, no one, not even a mouth that deserved a meal.

These ghosts, he might have slept entwined with them in the conference room. This was a betrayal. This was—

“Fine,” Anjun hissed. “Be useless. Be sheep. I’m trying to help you, Saks!”

The orange Tangerine Sunrise ad came back up again, filling Saki’s flow full bleed. He pushed against it desperately. But it must be bloatware, it must be spam, it must be clogging him up on purpose because he couldn’t think—

And then Saki finally pushed, hard, and the advert tinkled, the woman in it laughing and spinning.

<Congratulations.>

<What?>

Saki pushed again. The woman in the ad twirled this time, palms exploded blood-orange—<Congratulations,> she squealedand Saki wondered if Anjun had set this up also, sicced this ad on Saki—

(<Congratulations,> said the ad.)

Commotion.

“Fuck,” said Anjun. “I’m out of here—fuck.”

From what felt like far away, Saki heard the sound of Retrievers arriving. Some Bodies, mostly Fingers, all flashing J. B Laks employee codes. Ghosts fell all around them, their screaming filling the moonflow.

Saki could barely see past the ad.

<Congratulations,> it said, one last time.

Saki went flow-dark.

 


 

The Retrievers let him go with a favor penalty and a warning. No one accused him of causing the glitch. Saki wondered if they even knew that ghosts could.

The ad disappeared. Anjun must have engineered it as a fail-safe. A way to destroy Saki if Saki didn’t listen to him.

Well—Anjun had succeeded.

Saki still had the champagne sticker from Soscha. He used it to buy a loot locker at the info plaza. Within, he stored his four Tangerine Sunrise skins, the ones he’d purchased while trying to escape the ad.

He couldn’t look at them. Couldn’t bear any more ads with someone wearing them. His favor points were the lowest they’d been since the first month he’d been here. After the incident at J. B Laks, Saki had spent hours trying to understand it. Four Platinum skins, that too-limited edition—it did cost a lot. But Saki should still have had enough left for at least a few more standard Platinums. Instead, he barely had enough for a few Goldens.

Four Skins, rare ones, and nothing else.

Anjun must have taken some of Saki’s points. The shell-house, the sea-urchin lamp, the sim-doll, his expensive body, the mounds of favor he gave away—it all made sense now. Anjun had stolen it all.

Stolen from ghosts. From other darkworlders. From Saki. The betrayal rankled.

Saki had wandered off from J. B Laks and into inner slivermoon where the gambling parlors were. Inside, silver-bodied moonie girls coaxed their marks into playing one more game—just one more—for the chance of hitting a house jackpot. Their tinkling laughter rang out like advert jingles, trimmed to just the exact pitch and length. Saki could try his luck at a parlor. He could let a gambling parlor girl blow a kiss of luck at him, spin a machine, and hope. There was nothing more to lose. A jackpot could set him back on track again, and reset this mishap. A jackpot could help him be a person again. A jackpot could—

Saki froze.

At the corner where the street turned, from the shadows of the meat market, a cat had emerged. It was small and white like the moon. On its head was a little bald spot, and one of its ears had been clipped.

Chandni, Saki thought. O Chandni—you and I, we both live under the same moon. Here you are. And here I am.

Saki reached into the plaza. His first Golden Favor was Toes. Useless. Next, a Thumb.

The cat—his Chandni—sat in front of him, licking her paw.

Saki felt his phantom heart clench. He pulled again—Stomach.

No, Saki thought. No, fuck, no.

He needed Hands. He needed Hands for the cat. He needed Hands, he needed Palms—but whatever Golden Favor he could purchase was only getting him Teeth, a Tongue, pinky Finger.

And it didn’t matter, didn’t matter that he was spending all his favor because his mind was full of her, full of Chandni, white like the moon, with the bald spot and clipped ear.

Give me Hands, he thought. Give me Hands.

Hands to lift the cat. Hands to pet her. Hands to hold her, to tell her that the dream of her had been his only solace, that she was his guardian angel.

The banners gave error messages. He was out of favor tickets. There was suddenly too much weight on his body. His stomach rumbled, and a pang of hunger crushed him. An odd assortment of fingers and toes stuck out from his ghostly frame like strangely grown courgettes. Chandni looked at him staidly, hunger in her eyes. For a charged minute, Saki thought she might bite him.

Her sharp teeth, his new meat.

She merrowed and flicked her tail. Turned her face from him.

He watched her walk away.

[Editor’s Note: Publication of this story was made possible by a gift from Paul Smith during our annual Kickstarter.]


Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson

First Reader: Shoshana Groom

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Varsha Dinesh is a writer and marketing strategist from Kerala, India. Their writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Strange Horizons, Podcastle, and Lightspeed Magazine. In 2022, she was a finalist for a World Fantasy Award in short fiction. Unfortunately, she does enjoy several gacha games.
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