A Crossroads Dilemma

by Tristan Dahn

“Who’s that?”

“That’s my mom and dad right before they had me.”

“I’m really into how they’re taped to the wall like that. All the pictures, I mean.”

Kay hummed a polite nod, eyes sweeping over the wall’s haphazard cluster of photo prints and found scraps of collage art. It was an odd feeling to have someone over in the middle of the afternoon on her first day back home. Tima had been in Crossroads ten days, long enough to be considered all right by the neighbors and given some labor & resource accesses. For the past four of those days, Kay had been away in the hell of the towers trading survey reports for critical prosthetic body maintenance. Today, Tima was over to pick up a copy of Dimo’s unlocked terminal installer, which would grant her full access to local web. But things were awkward. Why agree to have Tima over and not just drop it off on a corner, Kay didn’t know. Now, they stood conspicuously apart from each other, one in a ruminative silence and the other feeling intrusive and timid, a stranger in a sorcerer’s lair.

They stood in a warm, sun soaked corner in a lofty narrow room flanked by four industrial sized windowpanes; the most personable nook in a hollow space that for whatever reason appealed to Kay. It had been the upstairs level of a two storie factory that used to manufacture garbage like those shitty no-rip leisure suits that always reeked of petrol and made your skin stink like artificial banana smell; a typical establishment some thirty odd years ago, back when the then-ruling shareholders rezoned the “deserted” city neighborhoods for manufacturing. Now it was just a place to sleep in a sinking block of other crumbling buildings.

Kay took a few plodding steps towards a worn wooden park bench that she and the homie Braga had carried into the building many moon cycles ago, and gestured for Tima to follow. It seemed like a warm place where Kay took her meals, a place where she did things, made things. Across from the table, against one wall, there was a charge burner rigged next to an industrial sink and a pantry box. You could guess it was set up so that when Kay sat at her meal-work table, she could either gaze out the window, or at those curated objects on the wall, conscious of them or not. The table top was cluttered with markers, worn sketchbooks, greasy take-out leaves, bits of found metal. Kay straddled the seat bench, her back angled towards the collage wall and cleared out a spot for Tima to sit at.

“I don’t like frames anyway, I think,” she finally offered, easing down opposite her visitor. “It’s some oldtime rich home owner shit, getting frames made,” she soured, “Plus I think they take away too much intimacy sometimes, that layer sitting overtop the real thing. I mean, it’s sad when things rip or they start to rot, but ain’t it stupid to try and preserve shit like that? Nobody’s got Nice Homes anymore, you know?”

“I hear what you’re saying,” Tima mused. “It’s just like our set-ups, right? We’re meant to rot too, but then…”

Kay looked at Tima to politely acknowledge this consideration (the ‘our’ and the rotting) and found themself caught up in a set of luminous brown eyes and an earnest gaze. This was the first time she’d really looked at Tima straight on, whose attentive round face was, at least right now, clear of the sombre mental anguish and weariness of soul most newly arrived people contained.

“I guess—” Kay began, “Well wait. I feel like that’s different. And it isn’t. Our set-ups versus framed prints…” Kay looked over her shoulder at the taped picture of her mom and pop. “I feel like… I know we’re gonna rot no matter what. Even when we get new drugs or parts, or like in my case, a whole new body, we all feel—at least us here in the Cross—we’re never like, oh we’re gonna live forever now! Naw, we’re just like, we got lucky. We’re gonna live another day. I dunno if people feel that way about putting prints behind frames. People do that with this notion that the print’s gonna really last. Sun filters and all that shit, like trying to preserve it for future generations? That’s cool, I guess. Things like that should be done if people wanna do them. But with us? How many scrappers here you known more than ten years? We all die or fall apart. No matter what.”

Tima searched for a response to Kay’s cold assertion, growing confused in the process, nervous to say something out of hand, afraid to ask something too personal. Kay watched her face, slow to realize the change in energy around them.

“No, now wait, I didn’t mean it like on some gloomy shit like that, though, Tima.”

“Wow, are you kidding?” she exhaled through a laugh. “That was such a downer!”

“Hmph…” Kay instinctively reached backwards for the curling edge of her parents’ print, fingering the corner; a nostalgic back and forth, flick flick, the sound of the last pinwheel blowing on the carnival man’s shopping cart, of a playing card in your spoke wheel. “Yeah, what the fuck,” she mused.

“I’m sorry. I brought it up. It’s totally personal… Maybe you just miss your parents?” Tima offered.

“It’s possible,” Kay admitted. “Sometimes I look at these old pictures of my mom and dad all young and in love with each other, and get blown away by how the world looked back then. How you can tell they’re not jam-packed full of bitz junk just by looking. How there’s still full neighborhood blocks and lots of buildings lit up cluttering the sky, with no partitions. No partitions back then, and no front, and no kids like us.”

Kay simmered in her grim nostalgia a beat longer.

“Do you have more prints I could see? Only if you want to show me, I mean.”

“Oh shit yeah,” Kay started at once, tossing herself towards the end of the bench side she sat on to retrieve an open shoebox.

“Check these out,” she said, pulling a small stack of flimsy photocard stock out and handing it over.

Tima took the stack reverently with both hands, eyes widening at the alien quality of touching someone’s personal relics like this. There were myriad images of one lighter brown-skinned man with luxurious glossy black hair stylishly cut into the old long style, and far-gazing eyes. His nose was strong, and straight, and paired well with the sensuous lips beneath. Body on the beach deeply sunkissed and smooth, at a former paradigm’s peak of youthful splendor and ability.

“The first time my dad showed me these was to give them to me before he died. He was old but not feeble or decrepit. He just had silver hair. His skin was a little saggy, there were liver spots some places, a small belly… You could sense the wisdom on him but not his age. He was really against the cell reinvigoration drugs when the clinics were trying to get people hooked on em. He always took me along to the botanicas and Chinese medicine shops in old downtown, always telling me to eat this and that, to heal in the ocean, to stretch in the morning… He was like, really a shaman for real. And he died alone. All he had was me. He was too intense to be with anyone; had a lot of problems, a lot of PTSD. Always telling me how he’d never gotten a proper mother’s love as a child, cause he was born… of a rape and she didn’t want the baby.”

“Whoa…”

“Well he didn’t use those words, but that’s what happened.”

“Yeah…”

“So such a beautiful creature, burning brightly in the world and unable to find the kind of nurturing love he needed so badly… I mean, I wasn’t even in his life like that, either. So I saw his pictures and was devastated right there in front of him, like I could’ve loved him. But he’s my dad. He’s already old. He’s where he’s gonna be…” Kay held a long silence. “I thought all that and just sighed a bunch while he put the pictures in a bag for me and asked me if I been eating right lately.”

“That’s heavy.”

“Yeah.”

The two fell silent, and in the lull turned to face each other, eyes elsewhere. Alone at the table, her first visitor in forever, Kay realized. The warm quiet of the space was regretfully too intimate at this stage. Before Tima had even officially entered Crossroads, Kay had intercepted her with a relay chat. And those had always been friendly, open, bordering on flirtatious (oh just trading hook-up stories and, you know). This was their first in-person interaction, though, and Kay found herself full of tension and a poor conversationalist. She usually prided herself on being a pro at unmediated contact, too.

“Um so, what are you doing tonight?” Tima offered as though s/he’d just remembered something, apparently free of or good at handling the tension so present in Kay’s heavy silences.

“Mmm, I dunno. I was gonna take a walk around, do some people-watching. Make sure the new regulator isn’t getting too much flack from my regulars.”

“How’s that?” Tima asked.

“What? Regulating?”

“Yeah, I mean, I know that’s what you do but I’ve never seen you actually doing it or, like, I dunno…”

“What, like being out on patrol with guns blazing, all fucking up stupid gang shit or something?”

“I guess, yeah. Do you do that kinda stuff?”

“Sometimes,” Kay shrugged. “Not really around here though. It’s hard to describe, I guess. We do action shit like that, but not since a long time. It’s more like keeping a garden, you might could say. I been walking here for a long enough time to establish some Ways with anyone that would need em. And everyone respects the agreements enough to not want to fuck it up so, you know.”

“Kinda?”

“Well, I’m just gonna tell you, every one here knows… If shit ever got heavy here again like it was back when I first took it back, there’s people waiting to jump on it in the chaos. The people that maintain my set-up would try and rally me and posse to do some fucked up shit; give us new guns, probably try and flood our bodies with engineered hormones, try and trick us to help them out so that we keep everything ‘safe’ and headed towards ‘progress’.” Kay frowned, hearing herself spit out those last words and feeling that what she’d just said didn’t sit with her right. “What I mean is that in gritty little ‘cities’ like ours? Unless we’re too good at what we do, or we get too out of hand, no one pays us no mind. That make sense?”

“Sorta. I had no idea it was like… connected like that? I mean, what you’re saying right now is sort of blowing my mind anyway.”

“It should. Those motherfuckers behind the partitions, the people I used to work for, they think they’re allowing us to be here. I mean in a way, they are—they make some things easier for us. Some things, I’m saying. They hook me up for certain things in return. But they have no interest investing in hostile groups of human-smelling, community-minded people like us. They don’t got the resources anyway, but they always schemin… So they’ll just leave us be and wait for our shit to get civilized and clean enough to eventually slip in and take over, and then make up new names for places we already got stories about and move the partition walls over a couple hundred more kilometers.”

“No way, that wouldn’t happen,” Tima jumped to say.

“It could but it’s not,” Kay added brusquely. “Joke’s on them cause we not about that civilization shit here. And like I said, they don’t got the resources the risk and we got too many good minds working together out here to—hmph,” she stopped short. “It wasn’t like this in the dreg-town you just came from?”

“No. I think I told you before in chat. There are still drone-protected towers up that way. They haven’t been replaced by fortified partitions yet, and there’s no heavily augmented cyborgs like you, either. So like, all the settlements outside and around the towers—well there’s only one actually and it sprawls kinda—the settlements are still all, like, survivor villages.”

“Really?” Kay gawked.

“Yeah, it was still pretty awesome, though. I stayed with a really cool family and their dog pack actually—”

“Why the fuck did you move here then?” Kay interrupted.

Tima’s mouth hung open hearing the foolishness in her own words. She swallowed slowly, shrugged matter-of-factly, and opened her mouth this time with a bit more reverence. “No medicine. No experienced healers. Lack of medicine. A lot of people died really easily. Stupidly. Food shortages, all sorts of agriculture issues… The land out there is so sterile, you just don’t believe it till everything keeps failing.”

“Wow man, I can’t believe it’s still so raw up that way. Who the fuck is in that dome,” Kay muttered to herself.

“Yeah, it’s—mmm, I dunno what to make of it,” Tima sighed. “What I do know is that I’m glad to be out here for now.” Sie paused and looked around the room, gathering thoughts. “I guess you have a lot to do with how it is out here, huh?”

“I dunno about that,” Kay began slowly, cooling the hotly formed doubt towards her decision to let a potential fool into her home.

“No, but I mean, there’s some really good radical shit going on out here. I dunno how long I’ll stay, but—”

“You know you aren’t the one who’s gonna decide if or how long you get to stay, right?” Kay reminded her coolly. Tima smiled sheepishly. A real ‘ohh shit’ kinda face that made Kay grin inwardly. It’s better to come across scary on first impressions like these. “Hey,” she started, softening, “I’m glad, though.”

“About what?” Tima was trying to act like she was following.

“It’s nice to hear someone talk good about this place, is all. It’s rare. Fresh.” Kay offered, wearing the grin now.

“Oh. Well. Good.” Tima’s nervous expression broke with a smile of relief.

“Aw man, and I don’t do anything in this place but bully my crew and bust people’s dumbshit up. The real do-gooder kids, the ones that keep things moving and building shit, you know? I’m not one of them. Just cool with em.”

“Doesn’t matter to me,” Tima grinned.

“Hah. Thanks,” Kay grinned back, making herself let go of the alarm and wariness of dealing with a newcomer, feeling the grim burden of a fated future slide happily off her shoulders. She was now. She would inhabit the present’s excitement of a close, warm, and curious body, here from a different place in the world for once. Here and unworn and lighthearted enough to enjoy having a contemplative chat as if all the world was at peace. Or at least, a moment in time with light and heat.

All of the sudden, Kay’s brow knit up with the intensity of this brooding. Leave it, already.

“You know, I was worried for a minute when we started chatting, like what kinda person you were and where you came from, how you got here and shit. I don’t intercept a lot of people who can receive chats. I gotta be worried about that kinda thing, you know? This place is special to a lot of people. Gotta make sure we don’t look too good to the inhumans over yonder. I just came back from there, the Ellison tower. It got me a little spooked this time—so that’s why I’m probably coming off real weird to you right now. I ain’t had time to decompress yet.”

Tima looked Kay over, whose eyes were now downcast, straight shoulders slouching inward.

“Are you worried?” Tima asked softly.

“Every day.”

“But you… There’s the whole Regulators crew. Are you the only one that has to worry about that kinda stuff?”

” … ”

Kay looked up wearing an honest, battered smile. They looked at each other until Kay realized Tima was too hungry for the intimacy. Kay moved her gaze onto the landscape of sweat sheen on open collarbone and tried to keep a disheartened frown at bay when her weary imagination provided a wistful vision of Tima generously smothering her face (like she would be talking about in those chats). Kay grew distant, started to float away, then made herself come back to her guest, who remained obliviously, graciously patient. “Anyway,” Kay started, standing up to pull what looked like a wax paper wrapped biscuit out from a pocket, “This is it,” she said, placing it in front of Tima. “You said you already have an AGAP foundation? Well this shit is gonna fortify that and then build some new matrices—reassign the individual structures, that type of thing—and then you should have the proper send/receive protocols available to exist on our web.”

“Whoa.”

“Yeah,” Kay gestured toward it proudly with a grin. “Homegrown shit.”

“How do I—”

“You eat it.”

“Does it taste good?”

“It don’t taste bad,” Kay shrugged, standing over Tima who stared up at her with a questioning smirk. “Maybe we can go get something to eat with that. I’m feeling kinda odd, you know? Might be nice to get some air, get you fed, I’m sure you haven’t been eating well till you got here, right?”

“You’re a lot nicer than I think you give yourself credit,” Tima interrupted, nodding to herself. “I just want to say that out loud.” She stood up, tucking the biscuit into her worn sling bag. Kay’s fraught, stern gaze softened, disarmed with no response. “And you didn’t answer me earlier!” Tima picked up without skipping a beat. “Are you doing anything later?”

“What? With who?” Kay fumbled. What’s she trying to do here?

“Well, obviously I wasn’t just gonna come over here to pick up an adapter and leave. Are you hungry? We can go to Peek-In and get rolls and people-watch. And like, chat, but in person.”

Kay looked at Tima, a little alarmed, a little enthralled, trying to discern Tima’s interest in her as either naive infatuation or something more consensual than that, any which way feeling very welcome to the relief of company, however fleeting. She exhaled slowly, set her shoulders back and nodded to herself glancing at the clouds in the windows. It was nice outside.

“All right. Lemme synch my interface real quick and get strapped up.”

First Online: April 28, 2016
Filed Under: all that's left, fiction, v1.5 edits

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