Miles above Fifth Jerusalem’s surface, Juli arched her back and raised her eyes to the darkening atmosphere. The bright curve of the horizon fell away as tension coiled up the root of her spine. She had arranged for a private elevator car with an encrypted UMN channel, but the threat of discovery still imparted a frisson of danger to the act.
The dry filtered air was sterile as the waiting-room décor, static-charged like the hush in a hotel lobby, like the magnetism of a stray encounter, a night booked in a glance or a whisper or the brush of a hand. A meeting off the record, a face she might as well forget in a week or two, notwithstanding amnesiac glances in a hallway or a conference call later on. The same slow dance with interchangeable partners, the music slurring and distorting with the compression of space until everything was the same distance away, remote beyond reach, the hard lights of the capital twinkling out beneath the atmospheric haze.
“Are you comfortable?”
She dropped her gaze from the window to his face, turned upward as he knelt in front of her. The ambient lighting in the cab made a flat contiguous shape of his bowed shoulders, the locks swept back from his forehead, the gloved hand resting on the bench at her knee. A few inches of microsuede upholstery lay between his fingers and her thigh.
“I’m fine.” Juli shifted against the seat cushion, deliberately brushing his hand with her leg. “Are you?”
He stalled a beat too long before he nodded. “I’ve scanned the internal network for surveillance devices. It seems we’re not currently being monitored.”
Juli bit her lip and sighed inwardly--lest she forget he had all the charm of a rocket launcher and about the same capacity for killing a mood. “Well, good. Do you want me to help you, or would you rather go at your own pace this time?”
“Whatever you’d prefer.” At this rate they would reach the orbital station before anyone got off.
“Here.” Taking his hand from the bench, she moved her legs apart and laid his glove against the inside of her thigh. With her other hand she stroked his hair from his temple. “You don’t have to be shy with me.”
“I know.” He pushed his head against her hand like a touch-starved animal, the physical need for affection overriding any other instinct. “But I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. This isn’t exactly ....”
“Shh. It’s all right.” She slipped her right hand forward to cradle his jaw, tilting his head back while drawing him closer. The fingers of her left hand followed the tapering hairline down the back of his neck. “I feel safe with you. And I want you to feel just as safe with me.”
He sighed, his eyes half-closed and slipping out of focus. Words often escaped him, but he was plain-spoken even in silence. His flattened affect and impassive front were low hurdles beside the labyrinth of defenses she had built around her own vulnerabilities. It only seemed otherwise because no one ever tried to get past his.
Of course, most of her partners hadn’t tried either. They came for the myth or the mystery, the Babylon harlot of the tabloid exposés or the madman's fallen bride. Any intimation of humanity on her part would have ruined the spectacle. She let them sleep with the idea of her, the image they projected onto holographic screens and fantasized about possessing, violating, or defiling. It suited her to remain untouched while her body and reputation got around.
Ziggurat 8 was an exception, though he still idolized her--just not in the complicated way the others did, not by making her an avatar of some internal perversion or a goddess in a hall of mirrors. His devotion was plain, his submission in earnest. For all the complexities of his material existence, his sole desire was so primal she had him figured out before the end of their first meeting.
Jan Sauer, what was left of him, wanted to die. He longed for death, if not of the body, at least of the self, a recess from the century-long afterlife he had been made to endure against his will. He wanted annihilation, but more than that, he wanted her to annihilate him. It was so naïve she almost felt sorry for him, and for herself. She had already led him too far behind her defenses, too deep into her confidence for this to end well. But she was lonely, too, in a way no fleeting liaison could remedy for long. She was alone, and had been since Miltia, even before.
He had slipped her leggings down below the knee and tucked her skirt back around her waist--too reverently, as if he were unwrapping an artifact from Lost Jerusalem, fragile and priceless beyond estimation. It was flattering, but hardly stimulating. She angled her hips forward and wrapped her legs around his back, holding his head between her thighs. His right hand ventured under her dress, but the left, the artificial one, hadn’t moved from his side. He seemed reluctant to touch her with it, even though she had assured him she didn’t mind.
Digging her teeth into her bottom lip, she raked her fingers through his hair for the perverse satisfaction of seeing it in disarray. Maybe that was why she had allowed herself to talk him into this. Lately she had courted the urge to ruin something as pat and superficial as her reputation, and she couldn’t have manufactured a more perfect scandal. Ziggurat 8 was a legal nonentity, alive on a technicality he could have remedied in a few upgrades. Before his reassignment to the Kukai Foundation, he had been Federation Government property--and what she was doing with him now almost certainly amounted to a misuse of public funds.
She winced and ground her teeth, imagining the headlines too clearly. Damn it.
“Sorry.” The struts in his legs creaked as he leaned back and raised his head above her knees. “Did that hurt?”
“No, no, you’re fine--you were fine. It’s not your fault. I just ... I’m a little preoccupied with work, I guess.” She tried to smile. “You’re getting better.”
“Sorry.” His breath came short. “It’s been a while since ... I mean, I haven’t ....”
She laughed, straightening her skirt and leggings. The gold-chain trim on her white boots glittered as she crossed her ankles. “Stop apologizing. I said it was fine. Jan--do you still not want me to call you that?”
“It's all right.”
She nodded, repeating his name. “You’ve done more than enough for me. Thank you.”
“I’m sorry if--” He caught himself too late. “Sorry.”
This time she didn’t laugh; he looked self-conscious enough already. “I should be the one to apologize. I feel like I’m taking advantage of you.”
“That’s not what this is.”
“Are you sure?” She leaned forward and cupped his face in her hands--delicately, the way he touched her, as if one of them might break. “You know you don’t have to do any of this. It isn’t an order. You can say no.”
“I understand that. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t ... if I felt differently.” Beneath an overtone of reassurance, he sounded hurt. “Do you think I don’t want to?”
She moved to sit with him on the floor. The motors in his legs thrummed softly, shedding heat as she settled between them. She rested a hand on the plate over his knee joint. The metal felt like the surface of a cooling radiator. “I just want to make sure we feel the same. I’ve been in relationships for all kinds of reasons. Not all of them were good. And none of them were like this.”
He stared ahead, not looking at her. The fingers of his right hand closed and opened, creasing the stiff synthetic leather that encased them. Through the ports, the stars waxed over Fifth Jerusalem’s horizon.
I didn’t mean it like that, she wanted to say, but her admission would only drive the sting in deeper. She took the gloved hand in both of hers. “Sometimes I wonder if we ever really know what we want, or what we need, what’s right for us. I used to think I knew.”
His shoulders rose and fell, but he had nothing to say.
Do you want to know what it was like being married to a murderer?
The first time they were alone, she had asked him. It was a test. The story she would have told him wasn't the truth; it was part of the labyrinth, the smoke behind the mirrors. For all his faults, Joachim Mizrahi had died with less blood on his hands than his loudest critics--among them Juli’s colleagues in the Federation Government who had authorized and abetted the Miltian Conflict--and he had only ever been as mad as the world required of him. But no true story fit in a headline, and she found it easier to defend an indefensible monster than to make excuses for an ordinary man who had made some inexcusable mistakes.
Do you really want to know?
Do you want to know what it’s like being married to a man old enough to be your father who’ll be dead by the time you’re thirty and infamous for the rest of your life? Do you want to know what it’s like to be eighteen years old and infatuated with your graduate advisor and to think you must be in love because you’ve always been told you were mature for your age and the way he praised you made you believe it, really believe it for once? Do you want to spend the rest of your life wondering whether you loved him or only convinced yourself you did, for his sake and your child’s sake, and now he’s gone and your child is dead and everything that made you who you are is a memory that hurts too much to forget?
Do you want to know--because I don’t know what’s real anymore, sometimes, and I don’t know if I want you to know, but I want something, and I don’t know what it is, and I think it might be you.
“Do you have to know?” he said, interrupting a thousand other questions she hadn’t asked. “That is, would you be able to go on with your life without knowing? Or at least knowing nothing was certain?”
“I don’t know.” She hesitated, biting the inside of her lip. “Is that what you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
Now she wasn’t sure whether to laugh, whether it was a joke or the absurdity was the point. “Could I ask you something?”
“Yes.” He seemed to have no sense of irony, or if he did, it was too subtle to distinguish from his baseline.
“Would you ever let me touch you?”
His lips unsealed. He closed them without speaking.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it’s ....” His fingers slipped from hers, and he brought his hands together in his lap, the right hand a reflection in the chromed steel joints of the left. “I wouldn’t mind it. Actually, I ....” He broke off, shaking his head. “But I don’t want to complicate things any more than they already are. If this gets out--”
“It won’t. And if it does? I’ll handle it. You think I’ve never been caught before? My goodness, if I didn’t throw my detractors a bone every once in a while, they’d still be relitigating Miltia. It’s practically a favor.”
His lack of expression nonetheless registered a degree of astonishment. “You don’t think it’s a little embarrassing?”
“I’ve been implicated in worse.”
“But with a Life Recycling variant? An ex-human?”
She didn’t blink. She had braced for that question, had already asked and answered it herself. “I’ll admit it crossed my mind. But, Jan, here’s the thing--I don’t care. I want you. Right now, the way you are. I want this to complicate things. I haven’t wanted anything or anyone so badly in a long time. Isn’t it obvious? Shouldn’t that be enough?”
He drew a sharp breath and held it. His gaze tracked restless over her. In halting movements he lifted his right hand and brushed the side of her face with the backs of his fingers. A charge spiked her nerves. He was trembling.
“Are you nervous?”
“Well, don’t be.” She reached up to his wrist and touched the strap at the base of the glove. “May I take this off?”
His pulse stirred at her fingertips. He nodded.
She unfastened the strap and slid her hand inside, her palm to his. The lining was warm and tight across her knuckles. She worked her fingers up into the glove and slipped it off from the inside. His hand steadied as their fingers meshed. For a moment she was back in secondary school, making out with a less experienced partner in the UMN lab between classes. Decades later, the hum of servers and the flicker of holographic screens would remind her of furtive kisses and not knowing where to put her hands, of shifting her position in the dark and bumping her head on the underside of a desk, getting distracted while she listened for the swish of sliding doors across the room. “We’ll take it slow. I won’t do anything you’re not ready for.”
“Do whatever you want. Please.”
“Are you sure?” She put her hands on his shoulders and pulled him closer, bringing his face level with hers, her forehead to his brow. “What if I hurt you?”
“My body doesn’t process pain the way a human nervous system does, so even if you tried ....”
“Shh.” They were so close she felt his breath stirring on her lips. As he leaned toward her she closed the fraction of an inch between them and pressed her mouth to his.
All hesitation left him and he pulled against her, yielding to momentum and inertia. She dragged her hands through his hair and glided her tongue inside his mouth, chasing the foretaste of rust and salt and a bitter chemical sweetness she couldn’t place. His pulse was rapid but regimented, quantized in staccato lockstep to the strokes of an internal metronome. She wondered how much of his experience was physical and how much was cascades of numbers and inputs and feedback overwhelming his neural interface. It seemed to make no difference where one ended and the other began.
He let her ease him to the floor on his back and lay gasping as she pulled away. She bent over him and trailed her fingers around his mouth, lingering where their lips had touched. “Are you all right?”
He sprawled beneath her, panting, with his head thrown back, disheveled. “You don’t ... have to ... stop.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.” Straddling his waist where it tapered above the bulky prosthetic housing for the hip sockets, she kissed along his neck and jawline, lingering and deepening toward the hollow at the base of his throat. “Unless you want me to.”
“Please don’t.” He pushed back his shoulders, bringing his chest and collarbones forward like an offering. “Don’t stop.”
She dropped her head to his chest and ran her tongue along his sternum. His spine arched in reflex, and his hand slipped down over her backside as she eased into his movements, riding the impulse through him. He buried his face in the curve of her neck and kissed her roughly, mouthing her like a play-fighting dog. “Jan,” she breathed, clasping his head to her shoulder and drawing her legs tighter around him.
“S-sorry--I--” He pulled back winded, a fringe of hair spilling across his brow. “I got careless.”
“Keep doing that, please.” Pushing him to the floor, she seized his mouth in hers and guided his hand between her upper thighs. The raised seams on his shirt rubbed against her as she leaned into him. She fingered the clasps on either side of his collar. “Would you mind if I took this off?”
He managed to catch his breath. “That’s fine. You might not want to look, though.”
She loosened the heavy fastenings, releasing the straps around his neck and across his chest and slipping her hands under the lapels on either side. Tugging the reinforced mesh away from his shoulders, she bared the raft of scar tissue and cables where the left arm joined his body, a bruised and discolored patchwork that stretched over his ribs and down his side from the edge of the prosthetic shoulder socket.
She inhaled through her teeth. Even a century ago, advances in medical engineering and nanosurgery had made possible the seamless integration of cybernetic implants in a living subject, with minimal trauma to the residuum or the surrounding tissue. But he had been neither alive nor legally human when his limbs and internal organs were replaced. A military product didn’t need cosmetic alterations. It only had to function.
Noticing her reaction, he reached across with his right arm and pulled the vest back over his shoulder, concealing the joint but leaving most of his upper body uncovered. Other scars, some old enough to have faded almost entirely, mapped the failures of past missions, the corrosive burns and lacerations and bullet wounds he had survived despite his best efforts. He dropped his head to the left and looked away from her. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to see this.”
“It doesn’t bother me.” She slipped her legs from around him and knelt at his side, bending down to intercept his gaze. “But I can see that this is difficult for you. Why don’t we rest for a while?”
He sighed and closed his eyes to avoid looking at her. “Maybe this was a mistake.”
“It’s my fault.”
“No.” Another sigh jerked the scarring over his ribs. “It’s mine. I wanted this too. Or I thought I did. I just wanted to know if I still ... if we could ....” His voice kept slipping, trailing into silence.
She drew her hand across his forehead, smoothing back the strands of hair she had pulled loose. “We can. If you still want to. We don’t have to force it, but ... I think we can make this work.”
He winced as if her touch burned him. “Do you really think it’s worth it?”
“Why not?” She moved her hand away. “I told you I don’t mind. And you don’t have to hide yourself from me. It’s nothing to be embarrassed of.”
“But I’m embarrassed.” He set his jaw and stared at the ceiling through the luminous backwash of Fifth Jerusalem’s sky. “I know it’s irrational.”
“It’s human,” she said over the throb and hum of machinery keeping him alive against his will, the meter of an artificial heartbeat slowing to rest and the forced compression of his lungs breathing him back to equilibrium.
She wanted to say, You are to me. She wanted to tell him she had never seen him as anything less, that the legal definition didn't matter. But it did, even beyond the rumors and smear politics she had learned to take in stride. It would matter as soon as they stepped off the elevator back into a world where one of them had no agency, no rights, no claim to personhood. More than that, it mattered to him now.
She lay down alongside him, tracing an orbit with her fingers in the depression of his throat. “It really is all right, you know.”
“I’m sorry to have disappointed you.”
“No more apologies,” she said. “And you didn’t. You ... surprised me.”
“Is that bad?”
She laughed. “It was pretty damn good for me. I didn’t know you were so passionate.” The side of her neck where he’d kissed her felt electrified, and she half hoped it would bruise enough to show. Her Subcommittee colleagues and her hecklers in the press deserved a new distraction as much as she did.
“Well ....” An abashed silence told her he hadn’t known either. “I guess we can keep trying.”
“Only if you want.” They had time, at least another hour before the elevator reached the orbital station, but from there they would part ways, with no immediate plans to see each other again. By tomorrow he’d be on a transport to his next assignment with the Foundation, working security at a dock colony in a remote sector with limited access to the UMN. Juli had the Contact Subcommittee and the bureaucratic fallout from the Gnosis terrorism investigations, more than enough to occupy her even without the addition of MOMO to her otherwise solitary home life.
He was quiet again. “What about you?”
“I don’t know.” She felt along the floor at his side until she found his left hand and slipped her fingers between his, the flesh of her palm to the warm steel. “Do we have to know right now?”
His breath hitched on a jagged inhale. He reached across with his right arm and cradled the back of her head, pulling her against him, and they lay together in silence, adrift on the horizon between one certainty and the next.