As night fell, the city fractured into a kaleidoscope of lights, like neon sparklers reflecting from rain-washed facades. Unabashedly garish, Club Masquerade hosted a dazzling assembly of humanity--new people, old people, everyone wearing a different body for the evening.
Outside the entrance to the Club, lighted sidewalk panels flashed patterns, numbers inside squares illuminated by each pressing footstep. A gimmick. Split doorways led into tailored environment chambers: a British Empire Safari Club, a discotheque with mirror balls and strobe lights, a rustic Sequoia Room, an Arabian harem with colorful rugs and sweet perfumes, a domed Martian colony chamber with red rock and thermal springs.
The specialized alcoves opened into the main interior of Club Masquerade, a wild environment of lights, music, exotic food, and unusual people. ID patches worked overtime to keep track of who was who, which mind in which body. Sometimes the people had trouble sorting it all out in the morning.
A person could be anyone or anything here, for a limited time--provided the desired body type was available. Pick a physique, swap with someone, wear it for a while, see if you like it.
Garth Swan's home-body always looked the same, except when he was on the hunt for new artistic inspiration: broad shoulders, blond hair, blue eyes. Certainly nothing he'd want to change for the long term. His shirt bore paint stains, charcoal and chalk dust, a smear of still-moving glittergel. To him, the people in Club Masquerade were a catalogue of humanity. Inspiration.
He looked up at the Club's chaotic Hopscotch Board, aglow with swapportunities, people wanting to rent a muscular body for a few days of hard labor, old men and women willing to pay for a week's vacation in a young and healthy physique, the usual sex ads searching for a two-night stand, once as a male, once as a female, or a blur of alternations before, during, and after.
At first he didn't recognize Teresa as she dodged across the floor. Today, her build was broad hipped and Rubenesque, her hair rusty auburn, her eyes green-blue. Her clothes were drab, loose fitting, as if they could have been worn by anyone . . . and probably were. She often joined small religious groups or philosophical communes, trying to find someplace to belong. Her latest group didn't seem to value individuality. But Garth certainly did, and he hugged her warmly.
The third friend, Eduard, looked tired from the hell he kept putting himself through, making a fast buck by swapping his body to endure unpleasant experiences--surgeries, colds, dentist appointments--for people who would pay to avoid the misery. He came in late, as usual, but his expression lit up when he found Teresa and Garth.
All three of them had grown up together, fellow orphan "Swans" in the Falling Leaves monastery. Garth assessed him in an instant, using an artist's eye for details. At least Eduard used his hard-won money to buy stylish clothes to fit his dark-haired home-body.
Eduard pounded Garth's broad back, then he took Teresa into a softer, more intimate embrace. He touched a new bruise that seeped through the makeup and freckles on Teresa's rounded cheek. "What's this?"
"Oh, nothing," she said quickly. "And it's not mine, anyway. The last person who had this body got hurt."
Eduard brushed his lips to the bruise. "Better?"
They went to a private table Garth had chosen, surrounded by the white noise of conversations. Taking charge, he waved at the cybernetic bartender's image on the table screen. "Hey, Bernard. The usual here, please."
A lump of flesh, all that remained of Bernard Rovin's original body, remained inside a windowless control room at the heart of the building, but cybernetic substations kept the bartender's eyes and ears and automatic hands wandering throughout the Club. By now, he was more than familiar with the preferences of his regular customers, and within moments their preferred drinks appeared from dispensers.
"I hate being predictable." Eduard reached over to switch his usual drink with Garth's foamy dark beer instead. "It could be dangerous."
Garth looked dubiously at the slushy blue concoction Eduard usually drank, now that he was stuck with it. Teresa was amused by his discomfiture. "You're always looking for new experiences, aren't you, Garth? Drinking blue cocktail things will add to your artistic repertoire."
On the floor of the Club, several dancers moved slowly, carefully, trying to adjust to new heights, new weights, new degrees of muscle control. On one of the floating platforms, a scarecrow-thin man stumbled backward and fell comically on his butt. The short, large-breasted woman next to him moved with awkward, marionette movements as she hurried to help him.
Eduard chuckled. "There should be a law against letting people dance unless they've had at least an hour to settle into their new bodies."
Garth took another sip of his friend's blue drink, tasted crackling sweetness that burned his tongue. "This is tolerable, once your taste buds go dead."
Teresa turned to the blond artist. "So what do you find inspirational these days?"
Garth's eyes lit up as he talked about his passion in life. "Still trying to understand it all, but there's so much. For example, I'm starting to wonder what it would feel like to be pregnant and deliver a baby." He pursed his lips, thinking out loud. "Of course, that would require a long-term swap for at least the last month to get the full experience. And it wouldn't be easy to find a body I'd want to live in for that long."
"Especially not a pregnant one," Teresa said.
Eduard rolled his eyes. "Artists! Who can understand them?"
Teresa looked at him with amusement mixed with maternal concern. "This, from a man who gets paid to undergo surgery for other people? Who swaps bodies to sit through someone else's dental appointment?"
He sipped the beer he had taken from Garth, frowned, then traded drinks again. "Hey, I've got to make a living. It beats joining the Bureau, like Daragon."
Teresa brightened at hearing the young man's name. Daragon Swan had grown up with the three of them as wards of the Splinter monks, but he had joined the powerful Bureau of Tracing and Locations, the BTL. "He should be almost finished with his training by now. I should check on him to make sure he's okay."
"I wonder if he spies on us." Eduard flicked his dark eyes from side to side in a comically paranoid furtive glance. "It's what Beetles do."
Teresa rested her chin in her hands. "Oh, I'm sure Daragon thinks of it as keeping an eye on his friends."
"And lucky for us, if we ever get into trouble," Garth said.
The music swirled into a new mix, and the surrounding conversation grew louder. Three effete faux-intelligentsia at a nearby table continued an argument with much gusto and little actual information. A narrow-faced young man waved a pungent purple cigarette back and forth.
"There are other precedents in mental development. Way back at the dawn of time, the human race went through a 'bicameral revolution,' when our minds split into left and right hemispheres." He took a long drag from his purple cigarette with finality and a smug expression. "This is simply another evolutionary step, our consciousnesses becoming detachable from our physical brains. The soul living by itself, interchangeable from physical host to host. I'd say it's a leap forward for the human species."
A second young man drained a flowery-scented drink to fortify himself before he launched into a response. "But it had to start somewhere. Think about the first person who could do it. All right, say the first two people--because the ability doesn't matter unless you have someone to swap with."
"And you want to know the biophysics? Does it matter?" The first man sucked delicately on his cigarette. "When you use a COM terminal, do you care about the network electronics? No. You simply tap in, extract the information you need, engage the communication link you want, access your accounts. You don't need a degree in organic matrix management to use the thing. You don't need to understand the dirty details about hopscotching, either."
The second man looked rebuffed. "Is there something wrong with asking questions? Makes sense to me that the whole hopscotch thing was triggered by generations of people uploading and downloading to old-style computer networks and virtual reality environments. That's how personalities first became detached from the body. Now we can do it all the time."
The third man had already finished his drink. "Indeed, but the amount of data that needs to be transferred is so enormous, and to be done so quickly--"
The purple cigarette interrupted the argument with a puff of sweet smoke. "Yeah, but at the root level, it all boils down to a form of telepathy. No one's ever accurately clocked the telepathic transfer rate. There's no benchmark."
Eavesdropping on the pointless debate, Garth, Teresa, and Eduard smiled as they shared the same thoughts. They'd heard all the theories a million times before; the Splinter monks often had similar discussions, equally without resolution. None of them knew the true explanation, nor did they care.
Eduard rocked back in his chair, raised his voice so that the posturing faux-intelligentsia could hear him. "Yeah, right..what if it was just from too much astral projection without using proper precautions?"
The whip-thin intellectuals looked sourly at him for squelching their continuing argument, then turned to debate matters even more esoteric.
Garth chuckled with Eduard. Teresa put her chin wistfully in her hands. "Oh, it wasn't so long ago when we were just as fascinated. Remember?"
A year earlier, after demonstrating their maturity by proving their ability to hopscotch, the three orphan Swans had finally been released from their sheltered upbringing at the Falling Leaves. Club Masquerade was the first place they had gone after the maternal monk Soft Stone and the other Splinter monks had bid them farewell--not far to walk, but a universe away in actuality.
Drawing strength from each other, Eduard, Garth, and Teresa had approached the mysterious Club, intimidated and anxious. "Let's go," Eduard said without taking a step forward. "I want to see it after all this time."
As children, they had watched this place from the safety of the monastery, which huddled amid the modern city that had grown up around it. Club Masquerade was refreshing, alien, unlike anything they had ever experienced.
The frenetic club was a haze of body-swapping, a confusing blur of shifting identities, a human exchange. A swirl of eager customers flowed in and out, some furtive, others totally open. And the people who went in were not necessarily the same people who emerged again.
Soft Stone had always encouraged her beloved wards to discover new intellectual things, to experiment with their bodies and minds. Splinters were open and relaxed about sex, too, seeing it as a prelude to the far more intimate swapping of physical bodies as soon as the teenagers reached maturity. But the monks offered very little true life experience. It was the Splinters' blind spot.
With a few stipend credits in their pockets and new opportunities before them, the three made their way into the city, as adults. Teresa looked behind her, and the old brick monastery seemed far away. Directly before them, the facade of Club Masquerade fascinated and lured her. Where did all those arches go? Why so many separate entrances? "Which door should we try?" she asked.
Raising his blond head, Garth took a deep breath, steeling himself. "Follow me." He marched across the numbered squares on the sidewalk, making them illuminate under each footstep. "This one."
With Eduard and Teresa following, he stepped onto a floor strewn with dried redwood needles and tiny fir cones. The walls were made of massive knobbed trunks of sequoias with warty bark that oozed sweet-smelling pitch.
Garth stood with his arms outstretched, his head craned upward. High above, in the imaginary upper levels of the conifers, rafts of cool mist clung to the branches. The trees seemed to reach as high as tall skyscrapers, until he realized that the ceiling was the holographic equivalent of a matte painting, projecting an illusion of vast height within a normal-sized room. "Look at this!"
"Oh, smell the air," Teresa said, discarding her expectations of a hedonistic chamber of pleasure. She hadn't imagined this at all.
"Told you it would be amazing." Snooping around, Eduard found a doorway in the side of a massive sequoia trunk. "Let's get to the central room."
At the heart of Club Masquerade, the sunken floor was surrounded by lights, girdled by a neon bar. Seats and floating tables appeared in convenient spots of light and shadow, depending on whether customers wanted privacy or spectacle. Lights and decor, sounds and smells, bombarded them: perfumed steam, colored incense, musical vibrations, and the drone of conversation.
Garth couldn't drink it all in fast enough. "Doesn't this sum up . . . everything you imagined the rest of the world would be?"
They climbed to a mid-level table and sat down. Teresa looked at the numerous patrons, overwhelmed by the pressing responsibility of establishing herself from scratch. The monks had secured each of their Swans a low-level job, but for the first time in their lives, Teresa, Eduard, and Garth were independent. Here, even with the comfort of her two fellow orphans, she felt herself to be at the heart of a cyclone, a central calm. She could understand why Daragon had decided to join the rigid fraternity of the Bureau.
"Let's make this our special place. Club Masquerade." She was afraid of losing Garth and Eduard, too. "I want to keep us together. No matter what happens, wherever we go or whatever we decide to do with ourselves, let's promise to meet here on a regular basis. We can do that, don't you think?"
"No problem," Eduard said.
"It's a plan," Garth said, alarmed at the suggestion that they might not always be together, all the time, as in the monastery. "In a changing world, some things never change. Those things become our anchors."
The music continued to throb. They ordered drinks, sampled new concoctions, tasted flavored stim-sticks. For long spaces they just looked at each other across the floating table, until all three of them knew it was time to go.
Then, with the whole world awaiting them, they went out to embark on a great adventure--the rest of their lives. . . .
Now, from a substation in their table, the bartender's remote eye popped up. "Sorry I didn't say a personal hello as soon as you three came in. I got caught multiprocessing a large crowd. Can I get you a second round?"
"Yes, you can, Bernard," Garth said immediately. He glanced at Eduard's slushy blue drink, now in front of Teresa. "And give us each something we've never had before. New experiences. Variety--the spice of life, right?"From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hopscotch by Kevin J. Anderson. Copyright © 2002 by Kevin J. Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.