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Anatoly Belilovsky was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later, he learned English from Star Trek reruns, apparently well enough to be admitted into SFWA in spite of chronic cat deficiency. He has sold original and translated stories and poems to Nature, F&SF, Analog, Asimov's, Daily Science Fiction, Podcastle, Kasma, UFO, Stupefying Stories, Cast of Wonders, and other markets. He blogs about writing at loldoc.net.

It isn't that we blind people get superpowers to compensate; it's that we pay attention. Cliquot '21 really does taste different from '20; a Stradivarius sounds different from an Amati; and when someone I know walks into the Heart of Darkness, I recognize them, and by the number of paces I know at what table they sat down.
"Hello Florence," I say. "The usual?"
A nod is much better than a wink to a blind man: I can hear her collar crumple and release, very different from the friction of head-shaking, and as her chair scrapes on the floor, I am ready with a glass of five puttonyos Tokaji I'd hooked her on, lo these many moons ago.
"Thank you, Frank," she whispers as the glass clinks on the table in front of her. Chanel Number 19 and breath mints. I hope whoever is coming is worth the effort.
"Enjoy," I say and walk back to the bar.
It's dark in the Heart of Darkness, but not pitch black: my laptop hisses softly, informing me there's light enough (or so I am told) for dark-adapted eyes to see outlines of people but not their features. People come here for blind dates: really blind dates. Whoever she is expecting, she'll either like them and stay, or I'll take her out the back way and make my apologies to the abandoned date.
We are world famous, here in the Ring, literally. We are the whole population of Lunar L5. Florence is the doctor. Doctors aren't supposed to date patients. Which is everyone. The Executive is in the same bind, and the Vice. The Security Chief, and her entire staff. Three teachers. Eight ministers of various religions. The Secular Justice counselor. The Alliance rep. Anyone with a shred of power over anyone else--
Oh, I know the Manufacturing Supervisor is sleeping with his engineers. But they make dates over the same scramble Florence uses, and they meet here in the Heart of Darkness, and they make love in one of my booths and leave separately and never talk about it afterward and all they have is guesses. Very good guesses, sometimes, but never enough to puncture plausible deniability.
Another knock on the inner door, and I buzz the date in, too, and as I hear his footfalls a headache knocks, softly at first, at the entrance to my skull. It's Thomas. He's on the Ethics Board. Ethics Board is people, too, not to mention, customers of mine, Thomas more often than most, but of late he's been asking questions. Whether it's idle curiosity or inchoate puritanism, he could wreck L5's fragile emotional ecosystem.
He could wreck L5
I pour vodka, neat.
"Thanks," I hear him whisper. "Is... she... here?"
I circle the bar, take his elbow, and steer him toward Florence's table.
"Hi," he whispers, and I hear Florence take a breath to answer.
"No talking on dates," I say. "House rules." Florence exhales without a word. Whispers are hard to place, but not for me. I'd know her whisper anywhere. It was the first thing I heard after the sirens cut off, in the silence for once unbroken by pump noises, the reactor I hand-scrammed slowly cooling beyond the last bulkhead, the afterglow of Cerenkov radiation the last thing I would ever see, and my face just beginning its long burn--
"I'm here. I got you," she had whispered.
There are noises starting behind me I have no trouble identifying: sharp intakes of breath, susurrus of sliding cloth, a pause as Florence rids herself of an inconvenient garment--
--a low warble from my laptop--
There isn't a single key I hit on the laptop; it's programmed to respond to any multikey palm slap as a scram. My house lights are so intense, I feel them on my wrists as heat. To a sighted person, they aren't just blinding; they are very painful. Thomas and Florence gasp at once; I run toward them, a seeing-eye-pad in my hand. The eye-pad is vibrating like mad with all the ambient light, then stops just as the heat sensation disappears. I wave it about, and walk in the direction the vibration reappears, albeit weaker. I follow it to the table, lower the eye-pad to its surface until it clinks against a small object.
A spy-cam, with infrared light.
I drop it to the floor and crush it with my heel.
"Get up," I say.
The guilty party complies. I reach for him until my hand closes around his elbow. I feel him shake as I guide him toward the door.
"Please don't ban me," he whispers. "I was only--"
"Curiosity killed the cat," I say. "Think on that. For a month."
I hear relief in his exhalation. He does not hear the relief in mine. I do not need him for an enemy.
I come back to Florence's table, making more noise than I have to.
"I'm fine," she says. "I covered my eyes when I heard your detector go off."
I sit across the table from her. She touches my face, runs her hand down the solid wall of scars from my crown to my neck, lingers at the collar, pulling down gently at the topmost button, not quite enough to undo it. My face barely feels it.
My face barely feels anything at all.
"It's healing nicely," she says.
She knows I cannot see her. She knows I did not touch her. She knows she is naked. She knows that I know she is naked. She makes no move to dress. I feel her warmth across dividing air, on the backs of my hands, on my forearms, on my wrists.
I stand up before our intimacy becomes unbearable, and listen to her dress, and leave without a word. I could've reached out. I think she'd have stayed: there's power in compassion. But given the guilt and shame she'd feel afterward--
It isn't that the blind develop superpowers; it's that we pay attention. You could have filmed us, high definition, 3D, full spectrum sound, and all you'd see is two people not talking. But I can see her scars, here in the darkness, as well as she can see mine when I come for my monthly blood transfusion. In her I can see: lust, amputated; desire, scarred; conscience, keloid and hypertrophic; and underneath, love. Untouched, unspoiled, intact.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 29th, 2021

Author Comments

Ethics are always a work in progress. These are things you CAN do. Which of them SHOULD you? And at the very least, as time goes on, one has both more and more tools with which to do things, and more and more knowledge of consequences.

The story grew out of my thoughts about relationship ecosystems. As it stands, there are definite, and well justified, stigmas attached to personal relationships within chains of command. But what of long term ecosystems within which there are no acceptable partners? Is there a solution in the story? No. Only a work in progress.

- Anatoly Belilovsky
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