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In our dry cellars

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Caleb’s breath comes fast and shallow, just this side of hyperventilation, as Nathan arranges him on the bed. It’s easy for Caleb to blame his growing dizziness on the decreased blood oxygen instead of—everything else. The broad palm running down the scar on his back. The rough scratch of Nathan’s beard against the slope of his shoulder. The cock already nudging at the backs of his thighs.

“Hey, shh,” Nathan says. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

It’s a line from The Shining, which is intentional. It must be, if Caleb can recognize it immediately. Does Nathan want to bash his brains in, too? Is that where this encounter is heading? Caleb digs his teeth into the meat of his palm to keep from laughing or maybe sobbing. The head of Nathan’s cock feels slippery, which raises more questions: does Nathan always carry lubricant around with him in his mostly-empty research facility, or had he stocked Caleb’s nightstand? Caleb hadn’t thought to look in there. He had no reason to. He had brought only a carry-on’s worth of clothes with him, and some part of him would always associate unfamiliar nightstands with Gideon bibles. Not with a slick hand resting heavy on his thigh, urging him to keep his legs tight together.

“You need to get your breathing under control, man,” Nathan says. “I’m not going to go through with this if you pass out.” It’s the closest thing to a way out that Nathan has given him, but Caleb doesn’t trust it. Nathan lies, has lied before, will lie again. The idea of waking up later and not knowing, not being sure one way or another, is somehow worse than being conscious now.

Nathan settles in behind him and it strikes him as funny that if more clothing was involved they’d be spooning. But Caleb is naked from the waist down and Nathan is just naked, because he hadn’t been wearing a shirt to begin with. Caleb clutches at the fabric of his shirt, the fabric of the coverlet that probably costs as much as he makes in six months. He doesn’t try to touch Nathan. As his breathing evens out, his mind stops racing. Caleb is acutely aware of the first slow slide of Nathan’s cock between his legs. Nathan has one arm under him, around his waist, gripping like a vise. Caleb doesn’t test Nathan’s hold on him even though he hates the feeling that he can’t move. He tries to focus instead on more innocuous points of contact: Nathan’s mouth open against the back of his neck, Nathan’s other hand resting on his hip.

“Do you want me to touch you?” Nathan says.

“You’re already touching me,” Caleb says, because he’s an idiot. Nathan only laughs. The hand on his hip dips down to pull at his cock, half-hard already despite (because of?) the panic he’s trying to fight off. Nathan thrusts more forcefully between his legs. Caleb tries to keep still. It isn’t long before his hips start moving in little involuntary stutters, though—minute thrusts into Nathan’s grip. Nathan groans behind him, low in his chest. His teeth graze the back of Caleb’s neck but he doesn’t bite down.

Caleb thinks in a distant way about muscle density and elasticity. Would it be different, synthetic flesh over mesh and metal? He thinks about what it would be like to hold Ava’s hand. (Because he wouldn’t touch her like this, never like this. Not unless she asked. Maybe not even then.)

He lets go of the coverlet in favor of clamping one hand over his mouth. He doesn’t want to hear the sounds he’s making; Nathan is loud enough for both of them.

“No one’s going to hear you,” Nathan pants. “It doesn’t matter.” He means it as reassurance, probably. Permission for Caleb to let himself go. That’s not what it means to Caleb, though.

It had come to a head when he and Nathan talked about sexuality and programming, but it started before that. The first night, maybe, when Caleb tried to use a phone.

“Welcome to the party,” Nathan said, biting and derisive and more than half drunk. Caleb was conscious of something then. Or maybe not conscious so much as aware in his primal lizard-brain that there was something dangerous in the way Nathan looked at him. It was a hungry and calculating kind of look, which had not been quite to apparent in daylight and aboveground. He wasn’t awake enough that night to ask himself why Nathan’s door was open in the first place.

Nathan brings him off first and Caleb comes with a soft choking sound behind his hand. He wants it to be over, but Nathan has to prove his superiority in this, as in all things. He takes his time. He readjusts Caleb’s position on the bed and Caleb obliges him. It would be worse to be held down that it is to be held too tightly. Caleb spends several long minutes staring at concrete walls and thinking about nothing in particular. Or particularly trying not to think about some specific things. Nathan makes a lot of athletic, guttural noises. He stays flush against Caleb’s back when he comes.

“Jesus Christ,” he says. “It’s been a long time since I was with—” He stops abruptly.

“A man?” Caleb suggests, because it seems to be expected of him.

“That too,” Nathan says. He doesn’t move; he doesn’t let go.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Caleb says. Nathan rolls over onto his back and Caleb has a moment of sinking horror. Would it have been that easy, to ask him to stop or wait or leave him alone? (No. There would have been consequences to that. There are no consequences now that Nathan has gotten what he wanted.)

Caleb doesn’t bother locking the door to the bathroom. No doors in this house are locked against Nathan.

“Nobody programmed me to be straight,” Caleb said.

“Bullshit,” Nathan said. “You were programmed, by nature or nurture or both.” He took a swig from his beer and looked at Caleb as though considering something more abstract than the man in front of him. “Unless you meant that you’re not straight, in which case Ava’s interest is bothering you for a different reason.”

“I like women,” Caleb said. “This isn’t about that. And anyway, she’s not—”

“Interested?” Nathan cut in. (That wasn’t what Caleb was going to say.) “Don’t sell yourself short. She likes you, man.” He took another long pull from the bottle. “You didn’t totally answer my question, though. You can like women and not be straight. It’s the twenty-first century. Why settle for either-or when you can have both-and, right?”

It hadn’t ever seemed that way to Caleb. Being attracted to both men and women had stranded him in a no-man’s-land rather than providing him with more opportunities. Dating women was easier, so he mostly did that. Not that he dated a lot. There were always other things that seemed more important. That seemed easier. But he didn’t think Nathan wanted to hear that, and he definitely didn’t want to explain it. So he said, “Both-and, I guess.”

“And when did you make the conscious decision that you were into men as well as women? Was it after statistical analysis of your pool of potential partners, or was that just what you were into?” Nathan switched seamlessly from conspiratorial to condescending. Caleb’s pool of potential partners had been approximately zero when he figured out he was bisexual. He remembered his guilty enjoyment of a particular physical therapist’s gentle hands when he was sixteen and had very limited mobility. Caleb had kept it to himself because he didn’t want to drive him away, or get sent to a different kind of therapy, or… He hadn’t really known what would happen. He had known there would be consequences, though. That sense of creeping apprehension had never entirely left him.

“No,” Caleb said.

“That was a rhetorical question,” Nathan said, and then took him to look at a painting.

Nathan is gone by the time Caleb gets out of the shower. He dresses quickly and leaves the bedroom, not knowing where he wants to go, but sure he doesn’t want to be there. He should pick up the clothes left on the floor (should try to scrub the semen off the bedspread). He’ll do it later.

The hallway is quiet. That doesn’t mean anything. The lower levels are insulated and soundproofed. He might not hear anyone coming. Bare feet on carpet would be almost perfectly silent down here. Caleb finds himself sitting on the floor with his back against the wall without thinking about it. Even from that vantage point he doesn’t notice Kyoko coming down the hallway until she’s standing right in front of him. Caleb looks up at her.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “Am I in your way?” He starts to stand, but she shakes her head. She looks down at him with something less than empathy: a harder kind of understanding. Caleb can suddenly think of a reason Nathan might habitually carry lubricant with him. “I’m sorry,” he says again. Kyoko walks a few paces and stops. She turns, glancing back at him. Caleb gets the message. He follows.

Kyoko takes him to a room full of mirrors. No: a room full of doors. There is a woman behind each of them. (Dead? Inanimate? He thinks about Ava. Dead.) When he has absorbed this, he turns around, and Kyoko gives him more to think about. She is peeling off her skin. There is mesh underneath. Metal and light. She doesn’t make a sound the entire time and Caleb wonders if she can, or if Nathan built her without a voice. Caleb doesn’t make a sound, either. He stands silent under the eyes of dead women and watches another woman take herself apart in unbroken silence. After a little while, she must be satisfied with the demonstration. She gets back into her skin and then back into her clothes. Caleb closes the mirrored doors. Kyoko walks him back to his room.

Inside, he picks up his clothes and does not look at the bed. He spends his time in the bathroom instead, trying to pry himself apart. Caleb plucks at the skin over his cheekbone but it stays where it is. He feels around the inside of his mouth for loose teeth, metal under the enamel. He stops short of prying apart his razor to get at the blades. That strikes him as too easily misinterpreted, if he’s wrong. Instead, he closes his eyes and tries to remember the invisible seams in Kyoko’s skin, and searches with his thumbnail for corresponding seams on his own body. He scores several neat pink lines down his arms and abdomen, but the skin never parts under his hands.

Caleb strips the coverlet off the bed and shivers under the sheets.

It was hours after talking about Pollack and sexuality. Caleb thought he had dodged a bullet. Nathan hadn’t brought it up at dinner. He talked about wine instead. Terroir and varietals. Kyoko served them three courses, each accompanied by a different vintage. For all that he claimed to want conversation, Nathan didn’t seem to mind giving seminars. Caleb admitted to his ignorance when asked for his opinion. His favorite wine was a sixteen dollar bottle of Rioja that a girl in college had introduced him to, and he couldn’t even remember the vineyard.

“Forget what you don’t know,” Nathan said. “We’re back on the Enterprise. Engage palate.”

Caleb learned to taste black pepper and currant in a kind of red wine he’d never heard of.

“It’s how I travel,” Nathan said toward the end of the third course. “I’ve got too much work here that I can’t leave on its own, so I get the rest of the world brought to me.”

“How long—” Caleb started, then caught himself.

“No, go ahead,” Nathan said. “You were going to ask me how long I’ve been living like a fucking hermit.” He downed the rest of his glass in one long swallow.

“It’s been… four years, I think, since I heard about you attending a conference,” Caleb said slowly.

“Give the man a prize,” Nathan said. “I had this place built before that, but I was only here sporadically. I’d written most of the first iteration of the AI that became Ava before that. At a certain point I had to decide whether it was more important to keep being the public face of Bluebook or work on actually advancing technology as we know it.” He was surprisingly candid, and (more surprisingly) not being cruel or sarcastic. “What do you think, Caleb? Did I make the right call?”

“You made the only call,” Caleb said.

Nathan laughed. “Bullshit.”

“No, I mean. It was a choice, and probably a hard one. But I can’t even imagine you doing anything else,” Caleb said. Nathan looked at him, through him. Caleb had felt warm from the wine but now felt suddenly cold.

“You know me that well, huh?”

Caleb dropped his gaze. “No, of course not. Sorry. No.”

“Hey, look at me.” Nathan’s hand came down, heavy, on Caleb’s shoulder. “I know I’m hard on you, but you’ve got good instincts.” At that moment, Caleb’s instincts were telling him to run. His logical mind knew better. He had nowhere to go.

He had nowhere to go later, either, when he door to his bedroom opened. He didn’t say no; Nathan never asked permission.

Ava is trying to show him something or tell him something. Caleb can’t seem to concentrate on her even though she’s the reason that he’s here. He keeps thinking what if I hadn’t signed the NDA? Would it have happened sooner, or not at all?

“Did something happen?” Ava says. “You seem uncomfortable.”

“Are my microexpressions telling you that?” Caleb says. He forces himself to smile.

“I wouldn’t call them micro,” Ava says, smiling back. She seems genuinely pleased by their private joke. “Was it Nathan?” she says. Caleb tries not to flinch. The cameras might not pick it up. Nathan might not see. Ava knows already. She also knows he can’t answer until the power goes out. “Or is it your claustrophobia?”

“What?” Caleb says.

“I’ve noticed that you always look at the door during lockdowns,” Ava says. “You don’t try to open it anymore, but you always look. Does the idea of being trapped in a small space bother you?”

“I think it bothers everyone,” Caleb says. Ava’s expression momentarily goes very blank before her look of polite interest returns. “But maybe me more than most. I told you about the car crash. I was stuck there for almost an hour before they could get me out safely. I wasn’t conscious the whole time, but I remember enough.” Even though he doesn’t want to.

“Do you dream about it?” Ava says. “I’m very interested in dreams. I don’t have them.”

“Sometimes,” Caleb says. “They’re not good dreams.”

“Nightmares,” Ava supplies. The power goes out.

In the kitchen, Caleb hears Nathan coming up behind him and does not move. His fight and flight responses are less well-honed than his freeze and hope for the best response.

“Why didn’t you tell her?” Nathan says. He’s very close behind Caleb.

“Tell her what?” Caleb says. His hands rest on the countertop and he can’t imagine moving them.

“You know what,” Nathan says. “When Ava asked about me.”

“Is that why?” Caleb says. “You wanted to see how she’d react?”

“No,” Nathan says, sounding exasperated. “It was because I wanted to fuck you but I didn’t think you could handle it, so I settled for getting off.” Caleb takes a while to process this, but eventually he does make sense of it. Of course Nathan is the kind of asshole who doesn’t consider it sex unless there’s penetration involved. By the time Caleb has reached this conclusion, Nathan’s hands are resting lightly on his hips. Caleb doesn’t look down at them. His own hands are still flat on the countertop. He looks out at the trees and his mind is far away.

“You knew,” he says at last.

“Knew what?” Nathan says.

“About me,” Caleb says.

“Of course I looked you up when you won,” Nathan says. “And if any of it was a little illegal at the time, it wasn’t after you signed the NDA. I made sure the fine print made it retroactive, too.”

“No,” Caleb says. “I mean. I wasn’t randomly chosen, was I?”

“No, you weren’t,” Nathan admits without hesitation. “But I didn’t pick you because I wanted to fuck you. I didn’t even consider it until you got here. I picked you because you’re smart, Caleb. You know what it’s like to be the smartest guy in a room. Not this room, with me, but out there.” In Caleb’s head, he hears Ava saying lie. Nathan doesn’t think Caleb is smart. Nathan thinks Caleb will acquiesce to anything: Milgram’s perfectly compliant subject. And even if he didn’t, even if he managed contact with the outside world, he has no one to contact. His friendly acquaintances from work would think it was a hoax or a joke. There are no living relatives to miss him.

He understands very clearly that Nathan doesn’t care what happens to him. Doesn’t care if he leaves alive, or at all. Caleb makes the conscious decision not to care what happens to Nathan, either. And the fight will be two (or maybe three) against one.

Later, sitting outside, Nathan is serious and honest again, like he had been over dinner. They talk about the atomic bomb and the future of humanity and intelligent life. It isn’t difficult to get Nathan to keep drinking after they toast to Ava, or the model that will follow her.

“I saw you last night,” Nathan says as they head back to the house. He’s swaying slightly but not staggering yet. “In front of your mirror. What were you doing, man?” There are cameras everywhere. In Caleb’s bathroom, apparently, and probably in his bedroom, too. Has Nathan watched himself get off with (fuck) Caleb? From different angles: from the outside. Did he see it for what it was? (Of course not.)

“I was tired,” Caleb says. “Confused.”

“Fucked in the head,” Nathan sneers. Caleb doesn’t argue.

A little later, Nathan wants to touch him. Caleb lets him. He lies back and thinks of anyone else, anywhere else. Nathan is too drunk now to get very far. He gives up and starts reciting poetry instead. Caleb joins him in that. He can still remember about a third of “The Hollow Men,” memorized when he was a teenager. Nathan drifts off.

Caleb gets to work.

Kyoko joins him, standing at his shoulder. He reworks some of the code, watches some of the footage of the dead women behind the mirrors. There’s too much to sift through. Kyoko directs him to the worst of it. One of them beats against the door until her arms are worn to metal splinters. Another reaches into her torso and disconnects something. And on, and on. He wants to ask Kyoko why she hasn’t taken matters into her own hands, but he knows the answer to that question. She is taking matters into her own hands. Caleb is the final move in a game she has been playing against Nathan for a long time. The realization doesn’t bother him as much as it might. Of all the ways he has lately been used, this is the one he objects to the least.

The lights are lockdown red when Caleb wakes up. His jaw aches. He remembers explaining the situation to Nathan, who is—somewhere else. He sits up and the silhouette that appears in the doorway is small and slight. Ava is missing most of an arm.

“Will you stay here?” she says. She doesn’t wait for him to reply. He can see her indistinctly in the room with mirrored doors. The consciousness that he is underground is suddenly oppressive, suffocating. He makes his way unsteadily to the door. He hadn’t promised Ava that he would stay.

Nathan is down the hall, too still to be anything but dead. Caleb is sure of it even before he notices the blood. He has been entombed with the dead before, and this time no one will come to pull him out. Kyoko is on the hall floor, also very still. Caleb makes his way over to her. Her jaw has been knocked off by the same kind of blow that knocked Caleb out. Her eyes track him jerkily, in fits and starts, when he enters her field of vision. The only damage seems to be to her face. A failsafe, maybe: part of the same programming that took down her predecessors when they tore themselves to pieces. Enough damage sustained and motor function shuts off. But Kyoko is still in there.

“Can I fix this?” he asks her, knowing she won’t answer. Behind him he hears the muted click of heels on carpet. Ava regards him impassively when he turns to look at her. She is in the elevator, ascending, before he has taken so much as a step toward her. He tries the elevator. No access. He tries the door to Nathan’s control center. No access, which is just as well. There would probably be no access to the terminal inside.

Caleb is stuck in a concrete bunker underground with a dead man and a woman who can’t move. He takes Kyoko’s limp hand in his. Synthetic skin over mesh and metal. If only one of them is going to make it out, he knows it won’t be him. He might as well do what he can.

He gathers the scattered fragments of her jaw and gets to work.