Here there was a severe humidity.
A sullen, dank overcast.
A grey world with the drowsy, thick air of a labyrinth.
It saturated the skin with an uncomfortable grime that, left alone, would blotch the skin and stick resting eyes shut. Kay couldn’t remember what this kind of environment felt like for a person without juice, without prosthetics, but she knew that it could cause sudden seizures, or lung failure, or cardiac arrest at certain exposure points. Maybe a less explosive, more conscious death by tumor growth or cancer.
Kay did not want to find anybody here, next to a superfund.
Her continuing proximity to it affected an increasingly tight, humming strain in her cells. She could feel all the specialized designer units, churning away, frenzying chemical, sustaining her body’s fortification against the poisons of this collapsed hellscape. This was not unlike listening to an entire night’s shouting match on the other side of the wall, nerves raw, waiting for the first jump in escalation. Kay would pause to press her eyes shut, as though it would alleviate the increasing pressure. Another atmosphere to her rising exhaustion. She was dour and weary from hauling — running on special deployment for days — when she was retracted and sent sideways to identify this town flooded high by a goddamn waste well. Her glands were swollen thick in her neck, her tongue covered with the thin mucous film of modified pollen residue. It tasted like stale plastic corn cereal and looked like purple-tinged blood when she spat it out.
If Kay had been alone for this survey, she might have witnessed the sour earth with a much finer detachment, like watching wind blow through the trees on a summer night. She would look at it all and then return home from the job in quiet procession, alone to honor death — relentless, abundant, and crisis. And after getting her prosthetic flushed, she would find a suitor to bury herself in and recoup. The neighborhood wouldn’t ask her why she was so quiet, why she was not in the mood to talk, and it’d be all good in time.
But this was a two-person run, and Rahl was her purgatory companion.
It fucked up her steady.
Been fucked it up. She hadn’t seen Rahl in a long bad time. Not since they left for that stupid-ass experimental coast assignment. Didn’t even tell her it was happening, just ghosted. Then she gets this work notice on the wire yesterday with Braga and Suli at base camp: Surveyor Rahl will be joining your party.
“Well, looks like we’re going to bed early,” Braga had stated, following Suli into his tent, leaving Kay alone to stare helplessly into an extinguished fire. In the morning when she saw Rahl’s form walking towards camp, she stared at them the same way.
“You’re done with the coast?” was what she asked once Rahl put their gear down.
“No,” they apologized. “I’m going back up after this.”
She nodded. Braga and Suli set in with their what’s ups and what’s it like up theres, while Kay strapped herself down and went to find a good tree to rest beside till it was time to go. That was this morning. Now it was a thousand years later and she found herself watching Rahl move around the abandoned town center like it was part of the regular safety protocol.
Stoking the tumult in her guts this way, a bleating throb in her head grew louder:
Rahl, our destruction could be so sweet, she thought stupidly. Don’t go back up the coast. One day we’ll die. They’ll resurrect their terrordomes and bury our embers like flicking ash off a joint. They’ll pop pills and forget the earth with their made-up histories. They’ll erase us because we built no structures. We have no successors. We didn’t write anything down and our families are dead — we only tried to know each other, and anyway, how long did that last? I am burning and you are…
Rahl. She gulped her voice down.
Kay stepped full into the sludge of depression. The thoughts filled the insides of her ears. A penance prayer, hushed with every outbreath as the want inside consumed more and more of her resources. In her gums. Between her teeth. Languishing half unformed in the back of her throat. Her vision collapsed into a soft color tunnel whose exit raced farther and farther away. Blood thrumming louder. Muscles starting to lock up.
She exhaled a hoarse, wet cough that, for a blessed moment, released the pounding tension seizing up her shoulders. Rahl did not look for the noise.
They heard it and did not turn.
Kay’s proud, straight-shouldered posture slumped. Her chest passed a low, mournful sound. She reached out, feeling the air for something to lean on as the strength to stand drained out of her. Kay touched a nearby bus-stop bench, fraying wood soaked soft with not-water and horrifying. How many times had it flooded over here, the superfund’s toxic ichor saturating every conceivable thing? Her mouth lowered open with a whimper. She was starting to pant, a sinkhole of dizziness widening.
Close your mouth.
Keep it moving.
Kay inhaled a sharp solvent-laced breath, looked down at her hands, and then straightened up. She took in another, slower breath. Looked around at her surroundings. Looked at her hands again, palm first, then knuckles and nails, then palms again. Open closed. Crack the thumbs. Okay.
With a sober sniff she blinked the tunnel vision away and reshouldered her mantle of awareness.
This was a horrible place.
A planned suburban enclave full of buildings that looked just like those shot out four-story row homes up in north, its residents so proud of themselves for recreating the experience of a thriving, tight-knit urban community, far away from the actual cities that were destroyed by their own officials and justice systems and task forces: Public schools, the libraries, the parks all turned into privately run businesses. Alternative systems made by the people declared noncompliant or unsafe or illegal. And that’s how a city gets rid of the people it doesn’t want, by making deals to lock them up in organic prison farms as free labor. Force whoever remains into service-for-data exchanges with the private management companies that then run the city. And the old district representatives and police chiefs and mayors get to have a nice house and good credit out in a place like this.
Kay shifted her gaze back to Rahl pulling debris away from weed-eaten residential vestibules. A beautiful person with a long torso and hefty arms. Prominent shoulders and wide, callused hands with thick rounded fingertips. They moved in the searing silence, effortlessly ignoring the direction of Kay’s eyes and the position of her indicator beacon, a gently breathing dot with a soft edge that sat in your peripheral awareness. Part of the aggregate spatial map. That’s how you knew where your crew was; it triangulated everyone’s location within a range and generated a sphere of locale. Check the SoL. One of the first things you get trained to use with your new Ellison prosthetic bod.
A vortex appeared and spiraled out from the tiny distance between their two dots, blotting Kay’s vision with fragmented thoughts about salvation, about sweaty adolescent uniforms made of stinking plastic thread, and the cold of her underthighs in freezing weather waiting for the once-an-hour bus home. A life in an old body that had never been outside her neighborhood. A past life Rahl did not know about — didn’t come from.
Kay straightened up again. I’m out here tripping, she brooded.
Survey runs to places like this were fucked up, period. Having to be out on one with Rahl was not cute. She wasn’t going to do a run fucked up like this again unless they let her do it alone next time. Hell no. Dutiful Rahl up in here acting like they only had a professional relationship? Giving her nothing but their back and guarded side, cruising down the SoL-suggested survey path like they were both just on a regular scavenging hike or some shit. Silence between them thick as ignorance.
Kay’s let her eyes close as she weathered a low cresting wave of nausea. When she opened them the world had clarity again. She observed with bitter relief the space Rahl kept between the two of them as they worked. A measured tandem. A professional focus. There was a deadline.
It started to rain.
Surfaces around the two of them began to hiss, unknown chemical reactions initiating. Rahl looked back towards Kay from a schoolyard jungle gym wearing that on-duty look on their face and caught Kay still coming up from the middle of her anguish. She blinked it off and stared back harsh, unwilling to speak with words. Rahl looked away. The rainfall was warm and increasing, structurally compromised buildings were shifting, new odors were emerging. One of them thought, could be the rain falling is poison or the poison on the surface doesn’t like the water, or something else all together. Their modified skin was loaded with ambient sensors that would log whatever it might be. In days past they would sit down to parse the data before handing it over to Ellison greencoats, and afterwards get over the trauma of the act with herbs and deep eye contact.
Rahl pushed a weather update onto the shared spatial map to forecast for hazards and then continued along the refreshed survey path. Kay noticed that the harshness of the mucous against her throat had dissipated and figured the rainwater was the kind that people might have once let their kids run out in. She wondered again if they were going to find any bodies, or anybody that was still living here, in any variation of debilitating pain or disfigurement — or hell, maybe someone who got themself juiced up like Kay went and did, determined to try and maintain the place. But this town, the people who lived here had money, or something like it, and they probably ran to live up in the Towers in whole convoys and shit. People with means don’t choose to stay in superfund-flooded collateral zones.
No, they just pick themselves right up and — Nope. Stop. Kay bit back a too-familiar, acrid rage and swallowed it quickly down. Its heat spread through her. She sniffed sharply as the crushing enormity of helplessness followed. Maybe this wasn’t one of those moneyed places; it was too close to the superfund, so maybe it was one of those high paying working towns that got thrown to the energy monoliths. Probably. That made her weepy. Please don’t let nobody be here. Please just let it all be fucked up and they don’t have to do any incident reporting and can just get the hell out with a general survey.
Kay looked for Rahl and caught the tail end of their shadow entering a doorjamb not far ahead. She ambled numbly forward, mind conjuring a memory back before, of shadows behind candle light, the in-out flutter of muscles holding Rahl’s balance, who crouched searching for the next work of background music to play while the two of them got high. When could they do that again. They would not do that again. There was no way the kid was the same person anymore. Rahl had probably left those memories in one of their old journals, left to grow moldy somewhere like everything else…
Rahl came out of a dank cave that used to be the town library, crept past giant aggressive reform fungi — the lethal mutant spores of which they could thankfully (painfully) filter — and stopped, feet together, looking at her.
Were a drone to fly by (fucking pests) it would see what looked like two adolescent boys, one copper, one clay, staring at each other from across a field-once-intersection of floodscum snakers and yellow stink algae. And if the drone monitor didn’t recognize that the two boys were Surveyor dispatches, he would think < lol ther about 2 be soo gone riite?? >. But if he did recognize them as Surveyor cyborgs, he would see if he could access their dia-logs and try to listen to their perverted body talk. But he wouldn’t get any, and by then his screen was already flipped to somewhere else because who wants to watch two flat chested cyborgs stare at each other? And a beat after that, Rahl and Kay would do the simultaneous act of looking elsewhere while speaking: There don’t appear to be any viable non-contaminated sites at all… Another town to be lumped into the Total Collateral 260 Zone. And what no one would see at all would be their awkward lingering and slow, tight-chested breathing in the game with which they championed the art of Aloof.
* * *
That evening the two would trek the tremendous distance out of the 260 Zone and back to the viable wetlands of base camp. Kay stress-wept in relief when the fetid, unnatural stench of the inundated town gave way to more welcome odors of growth and decay. Rahl had a habit of asking to stop and observe what grew here or there, remarking with measured softness on the wonderful adaptability of plant life, bio-engineered or contaminated or not. But as dusk fell they continued on in taut silence.
When the daylight was almost gone and the pupils of both their augmented eyes began to dilate catlike, the cadence of Rahl’s footfalls slowed to a stop. Kay, who had been in front, stopped and counted a full ten beats to herself before turning to look back. Rahl cast in profile, head craning back to view a gnarled purple-red tree up and down.
“What,” she glared.
“This is…” Rahl trailed in their gentle voice. “It looks like that strain of knotweed they were engineering in response to the rain erosion. But this is much bigger than I’ve ever seen. And they’re everywhere, this whole path. Look at the visible roots. Huge…” Rahl looked to Kay. They locked eyes and anger she was not ready for tensed her whole body. Kay tossed her eyes on Rahl’s tree in mock assessment, then turned on a heel and continued walking, shoulders high. If Rahl smiled, if they were going to say something else, Kay wasn’t trying to find out. She was not feeling well. Her glands had swollen her neck stiff. Her hyperdilated eyes burned and throbbed in the increasing dark. She switched to her regular vision and welcomed the temporary information vacuum. Now her eyes only burned.
“Hey,” a voice too close behind her.
Kay whipped around, knocking knees with Rahl, who lost their balance and staggered onto her already off-balance body. The two of them tumbled into a path-side gully overrun with the massive roots of Rahl’s knotweed trees.
“What you doing!” she cried, hitting them hard with both her hands.
“I’m sorry, captain!” Rahl winced, voice wavering.
Kay made out the lines and angles of Rahl’s face before her in the darkness, the rage in her exhausted body turning into something else. She felt an immovable tangle of rootstalk against her back. Against her thighs and her torso and chest she felt the heat of Rahl’s body on hers. It felt like falling into a faerie’s glamour, the two of them now destined to become part of the rootstalk, as all fools who tread these desecrated lands were. Kay felt her body resign itself. The immensity of these genetically modified rhizome trees was comforting to her. Familiar. Like a parent holding a child. She looked down at Rahl’s thighs straddling her torso, then up at their outstretched arms braced against an overhead burl in the root tangle.
Kay’s knit-up face melted into a downcast frown. “Did you do that on purpose?” she demanded softly. Rahl looked back, silent and unmoving, then not at all. It went on. She began to tremble. Then Rahl shifted off from the burl and laid their head on Kay’s shoulder.
Kay stiffened. “Why are you doing this, Rahl?” she protested, voice tight with dread. “Why are you doing this? It’s messed up. I don’t… Every time we gotta go to mission with each other you act like… It’s cruel. I don’t wanna. I can’t… Please.” She wanted to push Rahl away from her, but the muscle memory that rose in her body wanted embrace. The racing detachment flooded back into her.
“Tell me. Please,” she managed, and turned her head away. Rahl’s body shifted, then moved away from her.
“I wish there was a way I could do right by you,” they said quietly. “I wish I could understand why you get so angry with me when I go on the long jobs alone. I never…” they trailed off, mouth hanging in silence. “I never did you wrong except leave, right? I always come back,” they whispered.
There was a long silence.
“I got a problem, Rahl,” Kay started, forcing an even breath out. “A big one. When I let you in my life, I let you all the way in. And when you leave, I don’t know how to stop looking for you. I don’t know when you’re coming back. You don’t know when you’re coming back. Now you’re leaving all the time.” She took a breath in. “I can’t live my life that way.”
“What way, Kay?”
“I just can’t.”
Kay sighed and halfheartedly tried to get herself out from under them. “Get off of me please. Rahl. We got mission end tomorrow afternoon. We went this whole time,” she pleaded on. Rahl exhaled slowly, moved further back.
Rahl looked down at Kay’s crotch. “You switched from in to out.” She knew what was coming. “Before I left… You had me begging.”
Kay jumped to answer, only to find no words. Her throat closed behind a grimacing mouth. She closed her eyes. “You’re about to leave the minute we get back,” she heard herself say.
“I can beg again,” Rahl offered, obediently.
Kay was quiet for a long time, so weary and hurting that it was difficult for her to find any steadfast reason to refuse this exquisite offer, here in this ditch, despite all the endless suffering.
One day we’ll die, she thought sadly.
In the damp night air Kay reached upwards, took Rahl’s arms and hands and gently pried their fingers away from the branch they grasped until there came a hot compression, a sharp exhale. Rahl’s weight back on her in full, legs riding up on her body, searching for the right space to press their need against the tight tactical fabric, the engorged flesh beneath. Kay cried out from the wash of sensation. She refused to use her eyes, instead pressing back against Rahl, fingertips kneading. Rahl’s mouth at the corner of her lips — a wash of new sensation because they didn’t kiss on purpose, yet here they both were sinking into the abyss together.
Kay responded with deliberate, devotional motion, grasping them by the back of the neck and confessing against wet mouth that she had spent hours daydreaming of them sucking it ever since, that she must’ve switched without thinking, that she wanted to watch their face fill with agony, crying thank you thank you thank you while she fucked them with it.
Rahl sobbed against her, just like she’d spent so much time daydreaming about; a penance sound. An offering. She was no longer present among the knotweed tangle of the outside world, her thoughts a sunburst of flashing memories, of being under the old FEMA boardwalk during the droughts as a girl, of setting up behind the melted playground twisty slide at the glass-strewn rec center, and so many other violent, sordid tales of traumatic disembodied desire. Rahl had been through so much with her and her body. Helped her recognize those feelings of raw youth and experience them from a place of control. Inaccessible, crippling body memories that carried over into her prosthetic. This, from unbridled enjoyment, watching their lips slide over her cock, from holding them close and tight in cyberia while she filled their holes, negotiated the build-up of grappling and grunted words, after getting based and spending all daylight working each other out in their sanctuary realm the waking world did not touch. Kay sometimes let days pass in a haze replaying these exchanges, forgetting to take care of herself.
Now they writhed against each other, snakes casting off old skins on rocks, gasping against teeth and tongue, till they wore their nerves out and stopped to filter air.
“Thank you,” Rahl breathed. Dread clapped Kay in the chest. She looked at Rahl in the darkness and wondered what they saw. Rahl looked back over their shoulder towards the gully’s edge. “I’m stupid. We shouldn’t have stopped this long.”
“You’re more vigilant than I am now,” Kay murmured.
“It’s cause they sent me south so many times,” Rahl managed a smile in the dark.
“That makes me sad,” she frowned.
“I feel so lucky.”
You wanted me to make you beg, she almost said. Instead, she sighed and squeezed Rahl to her tightly, trying to get a tangible grip on the austere essence of their forlorn camaraderie.
“Get off me now, Rahl.” They nodded and peeled themself away. Kay watched as they climbed back onto the pathway from the ditch with three swift, eager motions. Then she collected herself and clambered up slow, like a lizard that couldn’t be bothered. The two stood observing each other, Kay regarding Rahl as a new potential unknown and Rahl looking back awaiting assessment. They offered their hand to Kay. She looked at it wearily and took a step back. Rahl mirrored her, moving away.
“We have to get within base camp range,” Rahl offered finally.
“Lead the way,” she uttered softly, dilated eyes shifting grim to the canopy of trees before them.
Then they broke each other’s glamour so they could run back within the sacred cybercom dispersal range, where they could call Braga and Suli to reassemble, and be able to compile four-position SoLs for safe return home come morning. Kay felt herself already heavy with tears and wanting to let herself collapse into a heap on the ground because Rahl would be going right back out. She had one of those fleeting unwanted thoughts that this is what she gets for becoming a conversión total. She should’ve known better, should’ve dealt with her shit before putting herself in another body with a whole different set of problems. When you go through changes you’re different forever. That’s how it is. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to mourn what happened. But weren’t no time for this shit in the wilderness. She cast her feelings elsewhere, to search through later, when it was safer.
They did not talk. They did not linger or look at each other. They stayed close and moved fast, for if it was to be granted, Rahl and Kay might find a lone hour to exact their mutual torments before having to part and carry on into tomorrow and less dignified days, batting eyes for their redcoat maintenance crews and greencoat propaganda men. Then back to the Crossroads, out of sight out of mind till the Ellison Progenitors wanted more R&D data. And by then Braga might’ve signed back out for another go at her deathwish. Suli would be back doing drugs in his air conditioned tower condo, and Rahl would be off wandering dead forests and writing poetry about their childhood across the borders, while Kay would be looking for anyone to sate her numbed, self-loathing needs.
A location-trigger blossomed into Rahl and Kay’s consciousness overlay — Suli had set up base 13 crometers away. They were now within four-point SoL range, a half hour away. Kay slowed to a stop, Rahl beside her. Why’d Suli post a trigger so close to camp and not farther away? Now Braga and him could locate them both and the privacy she had been aching for, that they had been racing to keep, was gone.
She glanced at Rahl desperately, unsure of what to do, then turned to face them full on. Her concern for the past and the future was gone. Rahl looked back at her, eyes wide and rapt under her gaze. She stepped towards them then and they stepped back. Breath shallow, gaze predatory, Kay discarded everything except her total desire for Rahl in this present.
She was upon Rahl. Shoving them against boulder, her hand staying their throat. She bit at their mouth. Rahl’s cries rose eerily in the dense night air. The pair slathered spit on grimy skin, choking on each other in service, fighting each other, Kay in a heartbroken fury, Rahl in atonement. A ways away, Suli and Braga would notice how the two breathing dots lingered so close to their base, the reason obvious.
Two boys in the wilderness looked like they were roughhousing. One pushed the other’s face against an ancient boulder, skinning cheek and shoulder. He violently tugged and pulled, for the purpose of winning, to expose less sun-seen skin, to spit in the palm, to claw cheek apart and jam palm against a pucker, a split fruit, to spit there again and feed fingers prying inside. He would turn him around and force him to bended knee and splay his mouth. Tears immediate, spit thick with mucous. The blissful measure of oblivion understood through mutual destruction, consumption . . .
Kay would replay the agony over and over while sitting through a blistering spring day on Braga’s stoop in desolate Old Cross. Braga absent himself, she had come there with a group of newly arrived young bols she’d decided to mentor. Where was Rahl now but off doing nature illustrations of mutated wildflowers or whatever, gone and left Kay bereft. Trying to rationalize her feelings before hitting back the handful of where-you-at calls from in-between lovers. Trying to ignore the smoldering rods in her chest and the weepy way it made her feel, while still telling these kids something useful about the world.
“When I was y’alls age this very block was getting stormed by this hired police army, Ellison, and Braga who lives right here? She had her parents gassed right in front of her.”
“Daaaamn,” one marveled painfully.
“There wasn’t shit here for them to take — they just wanted to ‘secure’ the areas outside the towers they was putting up at the time around what we all used to call the Valley. Wasn’t even a fucking city then. But they ruined ours, then made their own up. Well. It’s all in the past. You can go hear more at uh… Tuca’s storyteller house — they got some comics even — I just mean to let y’all know some history. History’s important and you gotta hear it from as many people and places as you can, you hear me?”
The three preteens, sickly but adapting, nodded acknowledgements to the intimidating but kindly neighborhood oldhead. She had gathered them up from an aimless death trail on her way back from an errand run Center North. They didn’t know that the way to the towers is mega-corrupting and lethal. Probably the rumor that you just need to do the run within two days came from the towers even, she realized. Fucked up. She sighed and shook her head.
And what Kay didn’t say, staring absently down the remains of the block, was that you could still know history and find yourself doing the same bad shit over and over again. Learning no lessons. Having no new realizations. Meeting no one to challenge your perspectives. Because you had no future and this was all that’s left, or felt like it. And it was easy to forget the hope, the only shred of anything really around anymore. Sometimes it even felt sickly good to forget the hope. To lament and rage and remember old songs. But you can’t stay mad forever. You can’t. You just own your sadness and work on. Ready. And maybe one of these days you’ll feel different.