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Six Month Ocean

Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and at 23 now writes from Edmonton, Alberta. His short work has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon and appears in multiple Year's Best anthologies, as well as in magazines such as >Asimov's, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Apex. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.

Cassie's six month contract passed like a fleeting dream, and then she was awake in neural recovery, sipping out of prepackaged cups of water and letting a bot festooned in yellow smiley face stickers check her vision, her balance, her reflexes. The wallscreen across from her showed a blue sky where the puffy white clouds spelled out date and time. She'd gone under in March and now it was August.
Her mother was not there to harangue the human doctors and exhaust the administrative AIs, but Cassie had known not to expect her. Not after Cassie arrived home for holidays with fresh gauze scarving her neck, her skin still puffy around the shiny white neural notch that would let a digitized human consciousness sit at the top of her spinal column and inhabit her, move her, be her.
Puppet, was the word her mother had gleaned from some Catholic net-tract. My own daughter, a fucking puppet. Cassie tried to explain how the modeling had flamed out again, because she was too short and her ass too big by at least a centimeter. She tried to explain how her then-girlfriend had paid off all her debts from uni in only a year of letting other people wear her body.
Cassie wasn't good at explaining while her mother screamed and sloshed Merlot, so she fled out into the chilled evening and then to a bar. Where she met Noel.
"You're sure he's not waiting in the wrong wing, or something?" Cassie asked when the nurse came back. She'd rehearsed the words; her tongue still felt foreign in her mouth.
"No Noel Pierce scanned in today," he said. "We can call him for you. He might have forgotten."
But Noel would not have forgotten. They'd marked off every day of separation on his studio wall, carmine red splatters leading March into August, both of them high on paint fume and love and amphetamines. Today, the most important day, he'd ringed like a target before he ran his red fingers around her neural notch and kissed her hard.
The nurse told Cassie she would be staying the night. Six months was a long time to have someone else firing your nerve endings.
"Not that long," Cassie said, echoing Noel. "People used to take six months to cross the ocean. And other people would have to wait for them to come back."
The nurse gave her a tab of Dozr before he left. She held it static against the roof of her mouth, willing Noel through the door, but eventually it melted anyways and she slept. She dreamed a blur of strangers' faces, most happy, some not. She dreamed retroflash cameras, a gleaming suborbital, Aegean sea and crushed marble sands, mirrors upon mirrors.
When Cassie woke up, Noel was standing there. "I'm late," he said.
Cassie studied his face, the geometry of his cheekbones, his slate gray eyes and full lips that had entranced her; first in the nightclub fracas, through a whirlwind of vodka, sweat, pheromone sprays; and then in the back of an autocab; and then in the swaying stairwell to his apartment.
And then the next day, and the next week, and months, because Noel was not like the other boys or other girls.
"I don't care," Cassie said, a familiar helium in her stomach when he put his hand on hers. She grinned. "Aren't you going to fucking kiss me?"
Noel bent across the hospital bed but only brushed his lips across hers. Yesterday, when they'd walked into the neural transfer clinic, clutching hands like children, Noel had been unshaven. Now the lines of his jaw were clean. His red thermal had become a black shirt. There was a new swirl of ink on the corner of his collarbone.
"I'm late," Noel repeated, lacing his fingers into hers. "I'm sorry." He smiled, but it was stitched on, and Noel did not apologize for being late. Noel thought time was irrelevant. He thought six months was nothing.
Cassie remembered: Sitting with their legs wobbling reflections in the empty pool, drinking Cannonballs and watching the starry sky, spinning dreams that seemed close enough to taste the jet fuel. They were going to escape together.
So when the contract offer came, courtesy of an aging pop icon eager to be young and beautiful again even if only for six months, Cassie knew it was fate. The money would be enough to go anywhere, do anything. Be anyone, Noel had laughed, tracing the skin around her notch with electric fingertips.
But now Noel's eyes were landing everywhere but hers.
"You're sorry for what?" Cassie asked.
"I'm with someone," Noel said.
Cassie stared at the wallscreen where clouds were slowly shifting shape. She swallowed. "But it was yesterday."
"I'm sorry, Cass."
"Did you even wait a week before you started fucking around?"
Noel's face twisted, pained, and it felt brutally sweet if only for a second. "You don't think you were fucking other people?" he asked.
Cassie thought back to her dreams, the blurs of faces, under her, over her, skin on her skin. "Don't you dare."
"I saw you on a newscast. You were on a yacht with Nicky Bricks." Noel nearly smiled. "I used to listen to him when I was in school. It was. Surreal. Seeing that."
"That wasn't me." She looked down and saw her hand still caught in his like a breath he was waiting to release. "You know that wasn't me."
"I know. I'm sorry." He stared at their tangled hands. "I met her two months after you left. I started to love her. I didn't mean to love her more than you."
"The money," Cassie pleaded, hating herself for saying it. "We could go anywhere."
She closed her eyes when he walked away, so she could imagine a shiny white notch at the nape of his neck, slotted with a storage cone, and that it wasn't really him at all, and maybe if she waited here long enough he would be wheeled in to wake up beside her.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 29th, 2015
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