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As Though to Breathe Were Life

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It’s nineday, which means Talisk is minding me again. She gets eightday off and I have another minder then, someone I don’t like quite as much. I’ve been here long enough that I can tell individual Qalasp apart. Most humans can’t. I think of Talisk as a woman a bit older than I am, someone quiet and necessary, a woman who sits on the couch and knits when she’s not doing anything else. What she’s doing isn’t actually knitting, and there’s not actually a couch, just a big translucent blob of something rubbery that you can sit on. But let’s not get hung up on semantics. She’s here to keep me sharing Harmony with her, which is pretty much automatic as long as we never get more than about fifteen feet apart. Neither of us wants that to happen. Harmony makes you want what’s good for you, and getting too far from Talisk wouldn’t be good for me.

I think it wouldn’t. I don’t know anymore.

It’s hard to explain what Harmony feels like. The techs tried, back at Space Command, when they were briefing me on the mission.

“We think it’ll be some kind of telepathy,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s the reason all the other agents we sent got caught— even with the surgery. The Queues have some way of talking to each other in the EM spectrum.”

“We’ll let you test it out first. We’ve managed to take a few prisoners,” said Lopez. It was technically a volunteer mission, and technically I hadn’t volunteered yet. But we both knew the big push coming up was our last chance, and without “intelligence assets in place”, as they called them, we didn’t have a prayer. So I said yes, and they put Harmony inside my head. I don’t know exactly where they found it, that bit of alien brain-meat, but I can guess. It wouldn’t be the worst thing they did. I don’t think the prisoners we took ever lasted very long.

The tests didn’t feel like much. I found out once I got here that most of the prisoners we took didn’t have real Harmony anymore. A lot of the front-liners took drugs that damaged it; helped them cope with combat.

I think about it sometimes, how I have a little piece of a dead guy inside my skull. The Qalasp gave me back my face, afterwards, but they wouldn’t take out the implant. It saves them some effort. If I didn’t have Harmony, they might have to lock me up, or kill me, instead of giving me an apartment and a volunteer minder.

Harmony isn’t telepathy. I sit on the rubbery blob next to Talisk, and I have no idea what she’s thinking. That thing she does with her hands: I think of it like knitting, but I’ve never bothered to ask what she really does it for. Just as an experiment, I imagine taking a swing at her. I don’t want to, any more than you’d want to take a swing at a woman sitting on your couch, not a friend exactly but someone you know from work. But I try to want to. I think of Selda and that last transmission from the Rotterdam, and I think of all my friends who came home in specimen bags, and I think about how I’m here, in this little underground apartment with no windows and no human company. I’ll be here till I’m old enough to die. I still don’t want to hit her. It would be utterly pointless. It’d hurt her, and it wouldn’t help me.

Once upon a time, I’d have wanted to, and reasoned myself out of it. Now I just don’t want to. That’s Harmony.

I’ve done the experiment a lot.

There’s nothing to do here. I go to a cafeteria for meals and a commissary for soap and I go to the library. Talisk comes with me. We take a tunnelcar. I prefer walking, but most of the minders are agoraphobic; the Qalasp are burrowers, the sky drives them nuts. The tunnelcars don’t have full walls, just railings at the sides. I hold onto the railing and the wall goes by in the dark. I remember how when I was a kid, back in Brooklyn, I’d want to reach out through the window and touch the wall of the subway, just lightly.

I miss New York: the little neighborhood stores, the crowded sidewalks, the lights in the office windows on a rainy night. Bagels. Bagels with sesame seeds. Live music. Rats. I used to watch for rats while I waited for my train. Nothing lives in the tunnels here. The Qalasp don’t litter.

At the library there are lots of people to share Harmony with, so Talisk can take a break for a bit while I watch holoshows. I’ve been watching something called Baghast Learns To Do It. The host (I think of him as a middle-aged egghead— plaid shirt and wacky glasses) goes somewhere exotic, learns to do something offbeat. Last tenday he was on driving an icebreaker. This week he’s in the asteroid belt, learning to run a sanitation plant. There’s no locally produced drama. They genuinely like documentaries. Baghast is pretty good, honestly.

I get bored of sump pumps and hydroponics, though, so I cue up the human stuff. There isn’t much. It was plainly picked out at random by some attache right after Earth surrendered. A live production of The Taming of the Shrew— all amateurs, all women— one episode from the middle of a serial drama that makes no sense. I’ve tried making up the rest of the story, but there’s too much going on. There’s some ancient lives-of-the-rich-and-famous thing, a kid named Delphi fooling around in an old-fashioned suncar. Oh, and pornography. Two shows, different actors. I like “Victoria” a little more, “Tanya” a little less. Cooking shows. I’ve watched it all a thousand times. I could make Shetland mussels in white wine sauce blindfolded, except…

The pornography is nearly as bad as the cooking, actually. Leaves me wanting things I can’t have. She can feel it through Harmony, Talisk can. Sometimes she’ll offer to help me. Nowadays I try to say no. It’s okay at the time, but it makes me feel kind of sick afterwards. The look on her face, that careful impassivity, like she was cutting my hair.

Selda and I… You know how you can want it so bad you just look across the table at her and she looks a little bit scared— just a little bit— like she worries about anyone who wants her that much. How she says she’s tired and you’re both on duty in the morning, and you can hear in her voice that she figures you don’t care, and she doesn’t really care either if you don’t. How you crash into each other, like you’re trying to get to someone behind her. Like that. Those Space Force whites used to drive me crazy. All those little gold buttons.

I don’t want to watch sex or food I can’t have, so I watch a newscast, the one that announces the surrender. There’s ten seconds of battle footage in there, and if you listen real well you can hear Selda say something. If I’m going to want something I can’t have, I might as well go for the jackpot, right? I’ve never been able to figure out what she’s saying. Rotterdam was taking heavy fire by then. The Qalasp knew they were coming, all the vectors and angles in the attack plan. Half the fleet didn’t even make orbit. There’s that last instant of her voice and then it’s back to the announcer.

I switch it off and go get Talisk to take me home. That’s nineday.

On threeday I miss the tunnelcar. It’s happenstance. One minute I’m walking down the platform, the next I’ve tripped and I pick myself up just in time to see the rails slide up and the car whir on out of the station with Talisk on board. So there I am, alone on the platform. I figure I’ll get the next one, and then it hits me: I can do whatever I want.

Hell, I can want whatever I want.

So I head upstairs, through the surface access door. It’s raining just a little, and there’s a breeze, fresh and a little chilly, like you don’t get in the tunnels. The buildings glisten; they’re made of something like mother-of-pearl, one or two stories high, no windows. I touch one and it’s smooth, like glass. I don’t get to come out here enough.

There are signs everywhere. People mostly come up here in emergencies, and knowing where to go keeps things orderly. I find one for the spaceport and start walking.

I’m worn out pretty good when I get there. I don’t exercise much these days. Fitzgerald wouldn’t be pleased, he liked his agents ready to run. Not that it ever helped me much. But he’d be impressed at how easily I get in. I don’t want to share Harmony with anyone; that would spoil it. But I pop a maintenance door and spend a few minutes scoping out the concourse, and there you go: welcome to the Earth-bound section.

Humans! It’s been too long— man, it’s been years. Have you ever thought about it, just how human humans are? Their voices, the way they walk, the way they smell? Back on Earth I didn’t even realize you could smell humans, not from across a hallway. You can, though. They smell like… “home” isn’t the right word. But it’s close.

It’s not a crowded lounge. There are a couple Qalasp sitting by the windows that I steer clear of, and a few dozen humans maybe. I wonder if people are still bitter about the Qalasp, or whether they just can’t afford space travel anymore. Probably some of both. There’s a little store and a medistation and an autobar for people waiting for the next ship out, with a sign, Earth-style beer and liquor. It’s in a couple of Earth languages and Qalasp in big letters at the bottom. Whoever designed it hadn’t spent much time here. Alcohol’s a poison for them, just like it is for us. Difference being, they don’t drink it.

I order a bourbon and a beer. The auto starts me a tab, which I fully intend to walk out on in a couple of hours. I don’t have any money; they don’t use it here. Maybe I can sneak onto a ship after. Not Earth, but somewhere.

Beer is bitter, a lot more so than I remember. Nothing here has any flavor, and I guess my taste buds have atrophied. I was going to sip the bourbon, but I figure I can do that with the next one, once I’ve gotten used to it again. Here’s to you, you alien bastards! It’d be a bad idea to order another one right away, so I order another one.

Halfway through the second beer, someone sits down next to me, a man in a Space Force uniform.

“Buy you one?” I offer. Jesus, I’m slurring a little. It’s been a long time.

“Don’t mind,” says the man. He’s about my age, probably gets a hard time on his yearly physicals nowadays. How’d we all get so old? The usual way, that’s how. He tips the glass to me, drinks.

“Where you from?”

“New York.”

“Ah.” He sighs. “Ain’t what it used to be, is it?”

“I haven’t been back.”

“No? I’m from Rio, myself, but I’ve been there plenty. Before the war and after, you know? I miss the skyline. They were talking about rebuilding some of it a few years back, but we can’t come up with the money, and the Queues don’t fund anything over two stories. Makes ‘em nervous.”

“There still good bagels?”

“Man, you really haven’t been back.” He looks closer at me for a second.

“I know you from somewhere? What’d you do… you know, in the war? Space Force?”

“Not me. Lost my girlfriend, though. Griselda Marquez, on the Rotterdam.”

He’s silent a second.

“I’m sorry. It was a damn shame, those City-class destroyers.”

“She had no chance. They knew we were coming.”

“Yeah, but man, the Cities were deathtraps either way. Built them cheap, used them up fast. Pieces in the game. I had buddies in those things, they booked their funerals in advance.”

We sip our drinks.

“So what were you? Ground-side?”

“Intel. Deep cover.”

“Here? I didn’t think we got anyone in. Nobody except—” And he gets it, all of a sudden.

His lips pull back to show his teeth, he stands up off the bar stool to look larger. We’re all just apes, on some level.

“You’re him.”

I get up off my bar stool as well, stare him in the eyes, feel my heart rev up in my chest.

“I’m him.”

“Why’d you do it? Why’d you sell us out?”

“I didn’t have any choice,” I say. I didn’t. The little tests Lopez arranged— none of them prepared me for the real thing, sharing Harmony with a whole crowd of people at once. How badly I needed to make the war stop. How wrong it all felt. It was every bit as physical as sex: like having a naked woman right in front of you. Like being in her, and trying not to move. I lasted about four hours and then I told them the entire plan. The whole order of battle, the times and dates. Everything.

There’s no point explaining any of it. I don’t really want to. I’m sick of being responsible. I want to be past the point of explaining, past the good of the species, past zero-sum games, past the long run. There is no long run. A sudden irrelevant flash of college economics, the professor flashing up a quote: in the long run we’re all dead.

In the short run I step back from the guy’s first swing and slam my fist into his ribs and the pain spreading across my fingers is purely beautiful.

I don’t expect him to shoot me.

When I wake up I don’t feel anything, beyond thirsty. Not nothing in particular, nothing at all, not even the pressure from lying down: I’m in a medical cutoff. From the un-feel of it it goes up to the neck. Now that I’m thinking of it, I get thirstier and thirstier. I lick my lips (dry) and look around the room, but I don’t see anybody, so I try to go to sleep, and I guess I do.

What wakes me up the next time is Talisk standing in the doorway. I look at her and I can’t read her face. She doesn’t look like a middle-aged woman who knits. She looks like an alien.

“Water?” I whisper.

“Not yet,” she says. “I don’t want to get any closer yet.”

She’s about twenty feet away, I realize. Just far enough that we’re not sharing Harmony. I imagine, reflexively, what it would feel like to deck her. It wouldn’t feel like anything. I’m in a medical cutoff, and the last time I got in a fistfight the other guy pulled a gun. Right now, I think, I genuinely don’t want to.

That’s kind of nice to know, actually. I could never tell, before.

“I’m not going to get closer,” she says, “Until you tell me whether you want to go back.”

“Back? To Earth?”

“Yes. The Chorus has given permission. If you want.”

“I can’t go back. They’d kill me.”

“Is that what you want?”

“No!”

“Then why?”

I think about it— really think. And honest to god I don’t know. A man should be able to get drunk if he wants, get angry, get in a fight. Live, not just sit in the library all day and wonder what he ought to want out of life. Die? Risk death, sure. But die?

“It’s a human thing,” I say. “The struggle, you don’t get how much we need it. Really trying, setting your heart on something grand and impossible, win or die.”

“Does it always come back to die with you? Are all your grand, impossible dreams about killing and conquering?”

“In some sense, yeah.”

I can read Talisk’s face again. She looks sad. She looks like my mother, the day I told her I was volunteering for deep cover; she told me I didn’t have to go and I said I was going, and after that I don’t think I heard a word that came out of her mouth.

“Last chance,” she says. “I can send you back if you want to go.”

Do I want to go? I want parts of it. I want to see New York one more time, out a window or something. Even with the skyline gone. I want to speak my piece, explain what it was like. I want to feel like I have choices again. Even if I don’t. Selda got to have that, all those newscast heroes did. They didn’t get a choice; I’m getting one now. Why do I feel like it’s the opposite?

“I don’t want to go back,” I say. I mean it, and I don’t mean it. Talisk steps forward out of the doorway, and maybe she looks a little happier. Then Harmony swoops down on me, and I mean it. I have to mean it. Harmony makes you want what’s good for you.