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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Crabapple

Lavie Tidhar, is a prolific author you can find in most of the finest venues for short science fiction today. His novels and short stories have garnered him a fine collection of awards and accolades. Look him up in the search window at DailyScienceFiction.com to find his other offerings on this venue.
***Editor's Note: This is an adult story, featuring adult sexual situations and language***
Youssou dreamed that he was flying. There was no gravity in that place. Dimensions stretched and shifted. A ring in space, kilometers long, spinning. Only the center remained free of gravity. Youssou floated, and his lover floated with him, short and stocky with pale skin. They were both naked, dancing, Youssou clumsy, used to the pull of gravity on his body, his lover more graceful, economical movements, used to this incredible confusing freedom, pale Asian skin against Youssou's tall gangly darkness. Their dance intensified, arousal coursing through Youssou's blood, a shared music passing between their nodes, entwined, the Conversation fading around them, that incessant chatter of network traffic, they moved uncoordinated, the time-lag between them making this mating ritual a challenge, so that they made moves anticipating the other's response across the chasm of space.
Youssou dreamed that he was holding his lover in his arms, Youssou's arms long and strong, and he dreamed his lover whispered words in his ear, words--
Vocal cords vibrating as air played against them, emerging as sound received, compressed by his lover's node and transmitted, a digital packet, bouncing from mirror to mirror and hub to hub, from the ring to Lunar space to Earth orbit and down, moving at the speed of light, down to Central Station to the place where Youssou lay dreaming, there deciphered, translated once again to sound, in Youssou's ear, vibrations running through the cochlear liquid, thousands of tiny hairs moving, translating the waves into electrical impulses transmitted to the brain--
"Mi wantem yu," his lover whispers, in the pidgin of the asteroids, and across space Youssou responds not with words but with his body's movements, pressing harder against his lover, his hand stroking the man's short black hair, his mouth descending on his lover's neck, kissing, softly at first, then harder, as the two dance, weightless, there in the irreal, in the virtuality of space, a private symphony playing, node-to-node, soaring as they soar, reaching crescendo with their excitement, their lust as it builds, and Youssou could feel his lover's pulse, his lips on his neck on his skin, warm skin and salty on his tongue, naked together floating in darkness surrounded by stars.
Neighborhoods sprouted around Central Station like weeds. On the outskirts of the old neighborhood, along the Kibbutz Galuyot Road and Siren Road and Sderot Menachem Begin, the old abandoned highways of Tel Aviv, they grew, ringing the immense structure of the spaceport rising high into the sky. Houses sprouted like trees, blooming, adaptoplant weeds feeding on rain and sun, and digging roots into the sandy ground, breaking ancient asphalt. Adaptoplant neighborhoods, seasonal, unstable, sprouting walls and doors and windows, half-open sewers hanging in the air, exposed bamboo pipes, apartments growing over and into each other, growing without order or sense, creating pavements suspended in midair, houses at crazy angles, shacks and huts with half-formed doors, windows like eyes--
In autumn the neighborhoods shed, doors drying, windows shrinking slowly, pipes drooping. Houses fell like leaves to the ground below and the road cleaning machines murmured happily, eating up the shrunken leaves of former residencies. Above ground the tenants of those seasonal buoyant suburbs stepped cautiously, testing the ground with each step taken, to see if it would hold, migrating nervously across the skyline to other, fresher spurts of growth, new adaptoplant blooming delicately, windows opening like fruit--
Inside his house Youssou woke with a start. It was hot, the humidity making his naked skin slick with sweat. His heart was beating fast inside his rib cage, the tempo of a machine gun, like a panic attack. He breathed with an open mouth, trying to stem the panic of this nighttime awakening, the Plateau he had been mainlining earlier in the evening leaving his system alongside the alcohol, making him clammy and scared.
He was alone.
A candle was burning on the windowsill. This neighborhood was still fresh, young, and the adaptoplant was green and vibrant. As it grew older lighting a fire became more dangerous, the drying wood became a firetrap, but Youssou had only recently moved here, and the air still smelled of the fresh, grass-like scent of the adaptoplant bamboo.
The candle cast a small circle of light on the hut. It was sparsely furnished. Youssou slept on a mattress on the floor. The mattress had been salvaged, some time ago, from the flea market of Jaffa, where virtually anything, from cheap soap to decommissioned battle drones, was for sale. It was saggy and the springs were too old, and stains from previous occupants created a startlingly colorful spiral on the face of the mattress, like a letter in an alien, sublime alphabet.
Beside the mattress a misshapen table grew out of the floor, its surface sloping at a sharp angle. On the floor beside it was an ashtray and a small bag of Plateau and a small piece of paper rolled into a tube. There was a nargila--a water pipe--by the door, a torn open packet of cherry tobacco, tongs, and factory-made coals. Youssou had gotten entangled in the sheets. He pulled them off him now with some difficulty and stood up. He walked unsteadily to the hole in the floor on the other side of the room, in the dark corner farthest from both the door and his sleeping area. Adaptoplant plumbing seldom worked well. A half-finished toilet grew out of the floor here but it was useless. Youssou had ended up punching a hole in the floor instead, and now he squatted over the hole, muscles straining, nothing but emptiness below.
A roll of toilet paper sat hanging from a branch and he used it. Down below, the old empty highway stretched. He could hear a solitary cleaner moving down below slowly, a murmur of approval as it found fresh excrement to digest. Youssou washed his hands in a basin full of dirty soapy water, another flea market bargain, dried them on his thighs, and went back to the mattress.
A mosquito buzzed by his ear, startling him. He tried to shoo it away. Already, the details of the dream were fading, the giant space ring, spinning, losing its solidity. Of his lover's fevered need there remained only the bland memory of pale skin and Asian eyes and a Belt accent whispering words he could no longer recall. He sat with his knees to his chest, on the edge of the mattress, hugging his knees, staring into space. Beyond the open window the stars shone down, but they were few and far, so different from the stars as seen from space, free from light pollution and atmospheric interference, so many billions of stars for the handful seen from Earth. But already the dream was fading, and those other stars.
He didn't want to go back to sleep. At long last he got up again, wrapping the sheet around himself, and went to the door. He stepped out, onto the adaptoplant ledge. A sleeping city of leaf and branch rose around him, eerie in the light of a sickle moon. Palaces of vegetation! Dreaming castles in dark greens!
There were other figures on the ledges. Even at this late hour he could hear snatches of music, conversation, laughter. He walked cautiously along a branching pavement in the air, reached a tilted Gothic palace, a ruined fountain semi-formed hanging suspended, a flower that had opened early. Water gargled in the cup of the flower and fell down in a thin misty sheet. People sat here, on the ledge, legs dangling over the empty highway. Someone was playing a guitar.
"Hey, Youssou!"
"What's the matter, couldn't sleep?"
"Want a smoke?"
"Got any food?"
Good-natured, empty questions. He accepted an offered smoke and joined them, sitting on the ledge, looking at Central Station.
It dominated the sky, the view, it was the whole world. Central Station, in the place the giant monstrosity of the Tel Aviv bus station had once been, the largest in the Middle East, now rose the space port, and sub-orbital planes and RLVs landed and took off high above, picking and discharging passengers. Around Central Station its neighborhood still sat, a mixture of elegant Bauhaus and uglier concrete blocks and Martian Moderne, of bars and birthing clinics, fruit and vegetable stalls, cafés and apartments, shoe stores and places of worship, a humanity concentrated in the old tired streets.
Around it, still, the old highways, and sprouting high above them the adaptoplant neighborhoods, roofs rustling in the wind, and Youssou took a toke on the joint and sighed, the smoke floating out of his mouth, the dream fading further still as he, at last, relaxed. A cooler breeze up here, from the sea to the west.
Conversation washing over him, the droning of the night creatures, these modern tree-dwellers, nomads of the bamboo streams. He wondered what Yan was doing, whether he was asleep, and felt a momentary tightening in his chest, of shame or affection he didn't know.
Kranki, too, was dreaming. In the small apartment overlooking the Ne've Sha'anan pedestrian street, the hub of the old neighborhood around Central Station, Mama Jones watched the boy sleeping, feeling a familiar mixture of affection and worry.
Kranki was not like the other children. His dreams floated in a grey cloud above his sleeping head. His eyes moved rapidly. Mama Jones could not discern any details from the dream. It was like watching shadows through a fog. She wondered what he was dreaming, where he thought he was. She worried about him, she remembered him as a baby, a small brown bundle with a serious face and deep, unsettling blue eyes, an Armani trademark hacked and spliced into his gene pool at the birthing clinic.
The boy's mother had been a Crucifixion junkie, an addict of liquid faith. She had finally taken an overdose and ascended to heaven in a glare of white light. Mama Jones had seen it, had passed down Fuenn Street, which was more commonly called Pin Street, or simply Fuck Street by the residents. It had been named after a Russian Jew, a scholar and author, Samuel Joseph Fuenn, but when his name was transliterated into Hebrew the spelling looked like Pin--meaning penis. For generations it had been occupied by prostitutes and junkies and their pimps and dealers, by rundown sex shops replaced by tru- and synth-flesh pits and immersion pods offering a virtuality of sex. Mama Jones did not like walking down that street, always keeping an alert eye. What she saw that night, however, had a touch of the sublime about it: she saw her second cousin, Anat, lying on the ground with her back to the wall of Number 1, the notorious establishment that had sat there, in one guise or another, since long before the space port was built. Anat was a Hebrew name now, but it had come from Ugarit, one of the defunct dead languages of Mesopotamia, and meant virgin, and was also the name of a war goddess, the companion to Ba'al. Miriam remembered Anat as a girl; she had been thin and beautiful with long hair woven into dreadlocks that moved above her head, Medusa-fashion, which had been the rage that summer. Her eyes were brown and her fingers long and her parents adored her, and she and Miriam were close, sharing secrets, talk, laughing together, whispering about boys.
But even then there had been an emptiness inside Anat, a need that found no answer, and Miriam remembered one night, when she had come into the room they both shared, and found her cousin on the floor, hugging a pillow to her chest, her eyes staring into the darkness with a look of terror in them that Miriam, in her turn, found scared her. Anat was shivering. Miriam knelt beside her. "What's wrong?" she said, inanely.
Anat shook her head mutely. When the words finally came they were halting, hoarse, torn out of her unwillingly. "There is… nothing," she'd said. "Nothing."
Miriam knew what she meant. Existentialism, it used to be called. Wondering what your place in the universe was, if anything meant something. It had been worse for the nodal generations, post-Cohen and the Others, when that thing they called the Conversation, that incessant chatter of humans and machines, spread out across the solar system, from Earth outwards, to the moon and the asteroids and Mars and beyond, to the outer system. Miriam patched into Anat's feed and reeled back: Anat was blind-surfing, hungrily, all ports open and exposed, letting the Conversation flood in, drown her:
A memcordist's feed from the New Kibbutzim on Mars, a volunteer experiencing kibbutz life in the red sand deserts, working in a hothouse filled with medical-grade marijuana plants, budding, the smell of them choking the air, Nuevo Kwasa-Kwasa music beating--
A spider floating in the cold dark space of the Oort cloud, seeking a suitable rock to crash into and convert into others like it, a Von Neumann machine at the edge of human space and the Conversation, listening to the distant music of the spheres--
An anthropologist on Dragon's World, on Hydra, that frozen moon orbiting Charon, where Dragon dwelled, that strangest of Others, the anthropologist's feed sending out confusion, images she couldn't quite interpret--thousands of Vietnamese-manufactured dolls moving within the warrens of Dragon's World, ice-tunnels carved into the moon, thousands of small simulacra moving like ants, a single mind inhabiting them, and the anthropologist, her name was Chen, she wanted to understand but couldn't, and Dragon's voice whispered in her node, there is only one way to find out...
And closer, from Lunar Port, fleeting impressions of Sandoval's Earthrise as experienced by a five-year-old girl, a tourist from the Belt come here with her parents, the long graceful journey by ship, and all that space, this domed city spread out across vast land, so different from her home on Vesta--
Deep sea divers in the Atlantic searching for a lost shuttle submarine commuting to the underwater cities, but something went wrong, an engine fault, submarine and all passengers presumed dead--
Volcanic eruption in the Solomon Islands, seen from the shore, people fleeing, smoke thundering, lava flowing like evil fingers grasping for human lives--
A murder in Sydney, a man lying on the ground beaten by men with shaved heads and living tattoos crawling over their arms and necks, laughing--
A traffic accident as one or both navigation units malfunctioned, a truck like a living dinosaur, with striped solar panels over its back, crashing into a small family vehicle somewhere in North America, one of the only places they still had cars--
Miriam had torn herself away, locked the feed, come back into the present clammy, her heart beating too fast, shaking her cousin, saying, "Stop it. Anat. Stop it."
Her cousin groaned. "Nothing," she said, listlessly. "There is nothing."
That night she had stopped Anat, had brought her back. But then they grew more distant. And Anat flitted, like a bee in summer, from flower to flower, taking nectar, seeking solace in boys and girls and sex, but later losing interest in it altogether, discovering and discarding drink, dope, wire-head, Plateau, working her way through the pharmaceuticals until, at last, she discovered faith.
But it was not the faith Mama Jones had. Mama Jones believed. Belief made life worthwhile, a belief in something greater, something wondrous. But many people lacked belief, many could not believe, even if they desperately wanted to. And so Anat had discovered Crucifixion. Belief administered in capsules, absorbed in the blood stream, belief suffusing the brain, neurons firing, showing you... God. Showing you something.
Making belief possible.
She was passing along Fuck Street that night and she saw Anat, lying there, her back to the wall. Something made Miriam hesitate, halted her steps. A light came down upon Anat, a white light, without a source. An impossible light. Later, she couldn't tell whether it was real, or whether she had somehow patched into Anat's own visual feed again, like that time long ago. The light came down and Anat's pinched, haunted face changed--she smiled, the smile lighting up her entire face, transforming her. She seemed to rise towards the light. Miriam cried out, at last, and the light died, and Miriam ran, she ran to Anat, she knelt beside her but her cousin was dead.
God overdose, they called it, on the street. The funeral had been a simple, sombre affair, the cemetery was a vast underground cavern, once a club of some sort. The dead of Central Station lay down below, entombed. A simple headstone, a date. Miriam attended, cradling Kranki in her hands. A small brown bundle with intense blue eyes, a baby who could do strange things, and it rained at the funeral, it rained underground, a localized rainfall, water coalescing around Miriam and the child, never touching them, surrounding them in a circle like a seal.
We look after our own. There is no one else to. Kranki was a marvel to her, a child, a living, breathing thing, how could you not believe when you held a child in your hands, she marveled, how could Anat not see it in him?
Anat's having a child had been the talk of the family, it was a surprise, no one had expected it, she had gone to the birthing clinics, Central Station was full of them, they were said to be as good as Yunan's, she had submitted her gene map and the doctor, it could have been Boris, even, he'd said so himself, to Miriam, the doctor compiled a child out of hacked genome and stolen code and who-knew-what and one day there was a child. Miriam remembered Anat's face when she first held Kranki in her hands, when she first brought him home. Ecstatic. Joyful. As though, for just a little while, she was able to believe.
And, for a little while, maybe she did believe. Then came the dark sleepless nights and the terror and the drugs again, Anat opening herself up to the Conversation in a way a human could not take, getting high on the Toktok blong Narawan, the high-bandwidth encrypted exchanges of the digital intelligences called Others, dropping Crucifixion as if it were the Third Coming or Xenu's Approach or the Gorean Singularity.
We look after our own, Mama Jones thought, watching Kranki, watching this strange child, his dreams like shadows in the air above him. There is no one else to.
"Yan?"
"Youssou."
He sat up in bed. Yan had taken to sleeping by the labs, in Central Station, Level 5. A small but comfortable room, no personal items, machines came and cleaned and tidied up each morning. It was easier that way, less to distract him, he had everything he needed within himself. He liked the work. They manufactured viral ads, spliced organics coded with digital, spores thriving in a closed, air-conditioned environment, like flu, infecting their targets, delivering a dose of compressed sensory data that bloomed unexpectedly in the human's node, offering fabulous holidays, cheap servient appliances, sexual delights, and religious awakening, depending:
Walking down the Level 3 Concourse, for instance, a passenger from Tong Yun City on an Earth visit, heading perhaps to the battle drones arena, or to a Louis Wu emporium where wire-heads lie on divans with a charge in their head, suddenly stopping, a confused look entering their eyes, their motion like a person suddenly and inexplicably underwater, reaching out a hand, in wonder or annoyance, to something that isn't there--
While in their hijacked feed the world is transformed and a heavenly choir opens up in song:
Feeling depressed? Feeling unhappy?
A beautiful woman with white angel's wings materializes, so beautiful that the punter's breath is caught in their throat (the model synthesized from a thousand human images in the labs where Yan works). She smiles, a little sadly, her beauty is irreal, it is positively metaphysical, uncanny. She leans forward and whispers, close in the passenger's ear:
Is something missing in your life?
The choir sighs, a terribly crescendo of sadness fills the air, the scent of eucalyptus trees and dust. The passenger, spellbound, can do nothing but nod, weakly, and the music changes, the scents become those of the sea, and ice cream, and trumpets blare:
Novum Industries has the answer!
Dancing girlz fill the concourse of Level 3, visible only to the passenger, who stands there, open-mouthed, as a herd of elephants majestically crosses the floor, fireworks burst into being overhead, and the angel leans forward, kissing the passenger lightly on the lips, and says:
Do you crave excitement? Wish-fulfillment? Did you lose your sense of wonder?
The passenger, captive now, the viral ad eating into their node, bypassing security and battling firewalls and aggressive screening, ubiquitous it worms into the passenger's mind, that complex mass of neurological and digital networks, interwoven into each other, and the angel suddenly grows. It is Metatron, it is a godly thing, towering above the passenger, saying:
Then look no further! Novum Industries' Special Therapy-in-a-Capsule is guaranteed to enhance your life, buff up your future, and cleanse your past! Take just one of Novum's patent medicines and you will notice the difference instantly!
The dancing girlz, virtual avatars each custom made by human artists across the solar networks, take the passenger's hands and lead them in a dance, song erupts everywhere, and an ugly little imp underfoot whispers:
Not for sale to minors. May aggravate known medical conditions. Non-church affiliated. Always read the label--
As the dance commences, the passenger stumbles forward, and suddenly the ad fades, leaving the passenger, alone and confused, in the real world, thinking, I should at least try one--
This sort of thing is what Yan worked on.
He sat up in bed, rubbed his eyes from a sleep in which viral ads fought each other in a bloody evolutionary battle--an occupational hazard, he'd been infected numerous times and the residues still remained, some dormant, some multiplying and mutating in his own nodal/nervous system. A sudden longing inside him, the narrow bed empty, no one beside him, longing and a desire flaming, tightening the muscles in the pit of his stomach and he said, "Youssou, where are you?"
"I couldn't sleep--"
The picture now, Youssou sitting on a ledge of tree, feet dangling, drinking beer, his upper body dark and cool in the night and the lights of Central Station, his nipples hard in the breeze from the sea, and Yan, his throat tightening, said, "Do you want to come over?"
They'd had a fight two weeks before. They had been sitting at the Grand Lounge, high above the Concourse Levels of Central Station, one level down from the rooftop where the flight craft huddled like birds.
The Grand Lounge, reinforced glass windows opening up in all directions: east, south, north, and west, to the Mediterranean and to Jaffa and to Tel Aviv and to Jerusalem East of the Arabs and Jerusalem West of the Jews and the peaceful low country, gradually becoming ancient, weathered mountains--
Evening time, the restaurant packed, the sound of cutlery and the smell of sheesha pipes and watermelon, chicken shish kebabs, filleted thighs marinated, fish barbequing, the smokiness of the flavor, the dimness of the lighting, strings of cultured lights strewn across the restaurant, divans, wooden tables with the grain visible, red table cloth, candles, the same food would cost a fraction of the price down below but for the view, the view!--
A nascent, crescent moon, rising over the Hassan Bek mosque at the end of Menashiya where it became the Carmel souk, electric green light shining into the heavens, stars spread out over the dark Mediterranean, the lights of a sub-orbital flight coming low to land, air balloons of light floating at street level, illuminating the old neighborhood and streets of Central Station, and someone to the south, from Jaffa, shooting fireworks into the air, a wedding or a birthday, there is always something to celebrate--
And so for Youssou and Yan, six months together, and this could be the real thing, Yan thought, with affection and frustration and something else, less easy to define, a feeling like a cone of light, like the flame of a candle, or maybe a match, cupped in the hands--
This could be it, he thought, looking across the table at Youssou, the candle between them, Youssou's smile enigmatic, in that Yan could not read it, he could not read Youssou at all, he was a mystery to him, he could not predict him like a mathematical model--
Reaching a hand across the table, and they were holding hands, fingers entwined, the light and the dark, and the waiter, hovering, interrupted them, carrying a huge round tray piled high with dishes. Youssou and Yan broke apart, self-consciously, smiling, fidgeting, and the waiter began to cover the table with plates:
Hummus with olive oil and paprika; fried eggplants; mushrooms and peppers pickled in lemon juice; tabbouleh like a small green mountain of bulgur and parsley and mint; tahini with cucumbers; tahini with chili; Turkish Salad--a spicy tomato dip; fresh celery in sharp lemon juice that sears the tongue; a plate of hot falafel balls; a plate of small, bitter olives, glistening; on and on the salads and dips went on the table, filling the space between the two men, resting in every available space, and the crowning glory, two enormous flatbread pitas, dripping in olive oil, covered in za'atar, that pungent green mix of dried origanum syriacum leaves mixed with salt and purple sumac and roasted sesame seeds.
"I'll be back for your order in a moment," the waiter said, finally depositing a jug of fresh lemonade (mint leaves floating in the murky liquid like seaweed), and left the two men alone.
Yan felt the glow of the candle between them reflected in himself; a soft warm suffusion of light running through him, making his skin translucent against Youssou's night sky. He watched him, with affection and exasperation and that something else, that ill-defined feeling he did not dare put a name to, as Youssou, oblivious, tore a chunk of bread and dipped it into the hummus, drawing it across the thick paste, then plucked a falafel ball and placed it on top, then, with a fork, added a little of the spicy Turkish Salad, putting the food into his mouth, crumbs falling. Yan watched in fascination as Youssou put his whole being into the act of eating.
Also in the restaurant that night was Miriam. She sat self-consciously, Boris, Boris Chong, facing her, looking calm and relaxed but Miriam did not like heights, and she did not like Boris' aug, that thing rumored to have been bred out of dead Martian microbes, pulsating gently in and out against Boris' neck, a parasite attached to its human host until it became, almost, a part of him.
And yet she cared for Boris, in a way she found uncomfortable, for they were not young any more, they were not the two young lovers for whom the word itself, love, came so easily, so glibly, who held each other's young bodies on the roof, under the stars, and whispered words that meant, years later, nothing. For Boris had left for those same stars, taking the lifts up to the very top of Central Station, taking a flight into orbit, to the habitat called Gateway, and beyond. While she stayed, she had responsibilities, a family, now a child to look after, it had always been easier for men, she thought, to go, to leave, while the women stayed.
Kranki was home, she had left him with Boris' sister. She watched him now through the house's feeds, the boy sleeping, turning, small fists bunching and dragging the sheets with him, inch by torturous inch. She worried about the boy.
She looked up. Boris was gazing at her; he smiled, he raised his glass, white wine swirled inside it, there was still something boyish about him, and something of the boy the girl who shared her name had loved, so long ago. It was still strange to her, that he was here.
"Isn't that your cousin?" she said, seeing the two men sitting, across the room, by the windows overlooking the Jaffa high-rises.
Boris turned, his face transformed again, affection making them softer, almost vulnerable. "Yan, yes," he said. Miriam remembered him as a boy, he had been born long after Boris had left, a small, shy boy who grew into a compact and serious man.
"He looks happy," she said. Boris turned back to her, his smile uncertain, he raised his glass again, as if he had forgotten he was holding it and suddenly remembered. Miriam raised her own glass, it felt too large, the wine came from the Galilee, their glasses touched, the smallest note sounding. She sipped. It tasted of the sun, and strawberries. "Will you be going back?" she said, the question erupting out of her, unexpected and unwanted, evacuated in force out of her mind, her throat, too late to take it back, to unask it.
The smile slipped from Boris' face, the aug pulsated gently, hypnotically, on his neck. "I don't know," he said--
She said, all in a rush, "I shouldn't have asked--"
"No, no," shaking his head, "you have every right to. I should have thought to--"
He had come back from the stars and they had found each other again, but--
"I spoke to the clinic," he said, unexpectedly. "I could have my old job back."
Something inside her sighed, an easing of a tension she did not know she carried. A waiter materialized by their table, tall and skinny, hairy arms exposed, said, "What will you have?"
"I wanted to talk--"
"Fish? We have buri, lokus, barbounia--" the list went on, Mediterranean fish in their local names--
"Fried or grilled?"
"Half-half--" a Jaffa speciality imported here, to the Grand Lounge, half-fried half-grilled. The waiter glided away, a tentacle-junkie sitting in a tub of water at the next table was peacefully pulling on a sheesha pipe--
"What about?" Youssou said.
Yan: "About us."
A silence across the table. Youssou stirring, a flatbread fragment still in one hand, "Yan, look--"
That silence again, something hurt Yan, like a panic attack crawling to the front, the beating heart and the short breath and he grabbed the edges of the table--
"I like you, Yan. You know I do. But..."
A sudden suspicion, the way Youssou's eyes kept shifting, his persistent, continuous eating. Yan reached a hand and turned Youssou's head, his fingers resting on Youssou's chin: "Are you high?"
Youssou shrugged his hand away, laughed, but there was a false note in the sound. "Only Plateau," he said. "And I finished the climb, I'm on the level now--"
Yan cursing, in Arabic, the words harsh and ugly in the softly-lit room, "Kus emak, Youssou--"
"Fuck you, Yan!"--with sudden vehemence that surprised them both, a box in Yan's pocket, his fingers around it but now it won't come out. He had bought it for this night, had booked the table in advance. He had prepared--
"Youssou, wait--"
But Youssou stood up, the chair pushing back with force. He shook his head, tiredly, said, "Forget it," and walked off. Yan was left alone at the table, heat rising to his face, his fingers turning and turning the small box in his pocket, turning and turning, uselessly. He stared after Youssou's back.
Silver blade moon hanging in the sky, you could barely see the shadow of the spiders, crawling on its surface. Lights up there, stars and ships, it was as if the Grand Lounge did not exist, the street was all there was in that it was real, cheap and dirty, full of the smell of raw sewage and lamb shish-kebabs, fatty, roasting on an open grill, and someone spat, loudly and wetly, and Youssou walked away. He walked away from Central Station, from Yan, he was going back into the trees, he felt safer there, less vulnerable.
Why did Yan have to go and spoil everything?
He was so angry. Angry at Yan, angry at himself. Yan didn't understand. He had his job, his family, that whole Chong clan, his whole comfortable fucking existence. Yan was the worst product of this fucking immigrant mentality, that even after three or four or five generations still hung about, genetically-coded into each successive generation in some awful mockery of evolution.
Petit bourgeois crap. Job, security, make babies to repeat same. What did Yan think he was?
He stood and breathed deeply, unsettled in the shade of the space port, his mouth open, tongue protruding slightly, upset at what Yan had been about to say, and at himself, for leaving him there, and as he stood there he saw Kranki, standing a few feet away, that strange reticent child from the birthing vats, looking at him, with eyes as dark as olives. Youssou said, "Kranki, what are you doing here? You should be at home--"
The air between them seemed to shimmer, for just a moment, as if Youssou's visual feed was gently messed with. He put an open hand forward, as if to stop something, or lean against something, but in either case there was nothing there.
The boy came closer. He looked up at him, a serious expression. "In the dreams," he said. "Do you like it?"
"What dreams?" Youssou said, but he knew, the boy knew, and he whispered, "Nakaimas--"
Black magic, in the pidgin of the asteroids. The boy had it, they all knew it, he was not the only one to have it, either. Something new. Something old. A quantum child born of probabilities. He said, "You look into my dreams?"
The boy nodded. Youssou said, "How?"
The boy shrugged.
Youssou let out breath. He had not told anyone of the dreams. It was not something he consciously did, or at least that was what he told himself, waking up in the morning, the stains and the sweat and the feeling of guilt, at himself, at Yan. His sleeping mind rode the networks, somehow hooking up with others, in the Belt, on the moon, on the other side of Earth--a dreaming that was at the same time real, two minds, two bodies meeting in that no-space of the Conversation, coupling, de-coupling...
The boy shouldn't have seen it. "Do I like what?" Youssou said.
The boy said, "When you fly."
And out of nowhere came the thought of a space habitat, spinning, Youssou and a sad-faced dreamer at the hub, floating, slowly, in midair, stars above them... the boy, like Youssou, had only ever known the pull of gravity. Youssou said, "I don't know. Yes." The boy said, "Heavy," and looked at him, sad-eyed, and then, just like that, he was gone.
The little shit was home, Youssou realized. Somehow he'd hacked into Youssou's nodal point, had imposed a visual of himself on the street outside Central Station.
He stood there for a long moment, then shrugged. The world was full of weird things and weirder people; he could not hope to make sense of them all.
Voice thick with sleep, Yan's face after two weeks apart, Youssou on the ledge of green bamboo, overlooking the lit Central Station, the wind soft on his skin. Yan's sleepy voice sending a shiver down his back, lust and affection intermingled into love.
Love. Youssou tasted the word on his tongue. In the dreams, these tangled digital exchanges obtuse with desire, there had been no love, only need, naked and vulnerable. He looked at Yan, thought of him, his taste, his scent, most of all his gentleness.
"Do you want to come over?" Yan said.
On the ledge of the adaptoplant neighborhood Youssou hesitated, suspended. Someone played a guitar. The wind rubbed against his naked skin. There were dreams, and then there was what was real, what was there, in front of you, as messy and irritating and confounding as real life was. Sometimes what was real didn't make a whole lot of sense, and love was a foreign-sounding word, like crabapple. He took a breath, and slowly released it.
"Yes," Youssou said.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 22nd, 2013

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