Eterna had seen horses before. Or horselike creatures. Cows maybe. From a distance, grazing in fields. Digital ones, obviously.

For the second time that day, her eyebrows disappeared under her dark hairline. Up close, the horse was slimmer than she’d pictured. It was also… multisensory. From a distance, horses (or cows) in fields might as well have been paintings. Up close, the unique smell of sweat and leather was overpowering, and it was all she could do to keep her nostrils from flaring. The imminent presence of such a large, powerful beast sent a thrill of adrenaline through her veins and made her breath catch in her throat. As it slid to a halt a little too close, Eterna actually took half a step back. She could see her shade out of the corner of her eye studying it, assessing the potential threat. It must have deemed the horse safe, because it stood stock still, arms held stiffly by its side.

Eterna’s attention was so consumed by the horse that she barely noticed the rider until the latter’s booted feet touched the ground, a timid greeting on her tongue. Somewhere beneath her awe and intimidation, Eterna felt a spark of relief. She’d learnt Common, the universal business language of the cosmos, back in school and DigiTech had paid for regular refresher courses to try and entice more designers to sign up for placements. The last one had only been a couple of months ago. Even if she was a little rusty, she could always resort to her shade’s language module.

“Hello,” she breathed in reply, dark eyes flicking back to the horse once or twice. “My name is Eterna…”

She’d meant to answer the questions, but her voice trailed off as her fingers folded over the collar of the coat Alethea handed to her and held it up, a little nonplussed. When was the last time anyone had handed her an item of clothing? Real clothing? Probably never. She turned it round to get a look at the back. How were you supposed to put it on? Turning it back to the front, she tried pushing her arms through the sleeves but quickly identified her own mistake: the back of the coat was over her front. She pulled her arms out, studied it again, and then swapped sleeve holes. This time, she was able to pull the coat up fully over her shoulders, the way it was meant to be worn. She pulled it forward a little to protect from the wind but didn’t bother buttoning it up, leaving the front open.

Alethea was talking again, concocting a plan. Eterna reached up to her neck to untuck her hair from the coat, studying her new companion properly for the first time. Alethea was stunning in a very real way: her cheeks were flushed prettily from the ride and a few strands of golden hair had come loose, curling around her pointed chin. She presented Eterna’s shade with an order, but the latter merely stood silently, completely nonresponsive. Eterna lifted her dremote to input a command but thought better of it.

“Shade, you can obey Alethea.” It moved in the slightly rigid manner which set shades apart from people, walking over to the horse and standing silently facing it. “Thank you,” Eterna added to Alethea, recognising that she was the recipient of kindness but not entirely sure what was going on. Why did they need to move about without being seen? Was this a local custom for new arrivals? “My dremote doesn’t seem to be working properly,” she explained apologetically, standing in the place Alethea had indicated. “I can’t digitise anything, not even underwear. Do you have any technicians in your world who would be able to fix it?”

She had a nasty feeling there wouldn’t be. Quixar had said that this was a world with limited technology, and Alethea’s clothes seemed not only very high quality, but also very real. Assuming she was a wealthier lady, and the clothes she was wearing were not digitised… well. Eterna had always wondered what life was like before the invention of digital multisensory simulations. Maybe she was about to find out.

“If not…” She hesitated, following Alethea and Midnight at a slower pace as they started walking. “Er – how does a person have clothes without digitising them?”
so grey is the face of every mortal
karl S


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