It’s raining but the rain is dry. It gathers on his hand, in his nails.
A clicking sound. He checks his watch but his wrist is empty.
The rain is dirty and it’s too late for him. There is contamination at the deepest level.
Something ticks under his pillow. He reaches under and his hand disappears behind the blank mass. He doesn’t know what is under the rock. He stares at the pillowcase where his wrist ends. The pillowcase is flat with wrinkles at the edges.
He pulls out a gun.
He twists the cylinder like a silencer. The black shape at the front is open wide.
It touches his mouth. His teeth slide along the barrel.
Click click click. The barrel is soft as a candle, burning him numbly.
Black wetness makes a mess. His face is dirty. His eyes are closed. He can see through his eyelids. He can’t put the mess back inside.
He wakes up and his face is reflected in the glass of the airplane window, hot solar ghost portrait hovering above the desert, muted geography, too big to understand as anything but a map. The silence remains from the dream. His hand is curled in an empty grip, stiff enough to hurt.
Absolute devastation. The desert is a red wasteland like a dead planet under a burning orange sky, sand bloodied with iron silicate. He wears a dark blue blazer that the agency bought for him, dropped into a costume, wealthy tourist.
LIVE IMPORTED SHRIMP SHOW
The resort is a tower in the desert, next to a flat hard cobalt stretch of ocean. An infinity pool wraps around the top floor like a ring. Giant video screens play panoramic visual muzak, softly fading between static images of the resort and mythological scenes reenacted in 3D.
COMPLIMENTARY VIDEO TOUR
THE BEAUTIFUL TELLING OF OUR LOST AND SACRED TIMES
IN ELABORATION WITH THE DESERT AUTHORITY
He walks along the circumference of the floor. The Rite of Spring plays from a distant speaker, making it hard to understand the droning synthesized narrator.
he let loose noxious creatures over the Earth; biting and venomous
such as the dragon, serpent, scorpion, venomous lizard
Clouds of asbestos drift below his feet, an ocean of petroleum, petro-pelagic abyss, darkly churning seas of dragon rot threaded by serpentine rocks.
thereby polluted the Earth that he did not leave any part of the Earth even as much as the point of a needle free from noxious creatures
Stravinsky’s Glorification of the Chosen One begins to storm. The songs seem to be cut and rearranged.
while the sons of Kaśyapa, both demons and demigods, were engaged in churning the Ocean of Milk, a very wonderful male person appeared
A single bone burns in a fire pit surrounded by carpet. It smells like a hot airport.
New tastes are available in the select lounge
this person was Dhanvantari, a plenary portion of a plenary portion
Use your card to access freebies
Dhanvantari has the meaning of moving in a curve
He flips through a brochure. 270,000 gallons of water per day pumping all around him, forced into the building through 200 miles of pipe. He sees himself running through 200 miles of pipe in pure black.
Flip. 86,976,000 joules per day, 60,400 joules per minute humming in the walls. Quantum dot widescreen. Diamond facial. These luxuries seem to say, the money has already been burnt, the sacrifice has already been made. So enjoy us.
A hallucinogenic oasis loops animation, verdant peacock leaves undulating, covering up the blasted desert behind the screen.
All was green here once, and the sky was blue.
Now the sand is seeded with 20 million land mines, some nearly a century old, hard discs slipping through the granular ocean, flowing through erosion, flooding, and wind miles from their origin. PTSD integrated into an entire region on a subsurface level, unknown time plus unknown destruction, every move the wrong one, forever.
AHURA MAZDA THE GOD OF THE SKY
ANGRA MAINYU THE DESTROYER
GORGEOUS LADIES AVAILABLE FOR CONVERSATION
He wishes he was here with somebody. This is the architectural version of a holiday, you want to share it even if you don’t like it. He tries to think of a person. The demographically solved suckers on dating apps can never map onto him. Maybe he should try dating someone at work. Like Rubicon said. Inside the terror.
There is the possibility, in this resort so far from the ordinary context, of sleeping with anyone, even those who would not have him, or the other way around.
He came here with three agents:
N— is pretty easy to talk to, but he knows about the war crimes.
C— has been known to have drunken homosocial interactions in the field but can get violent if confronted with it.
That leaves his superior, Quince Gelwaz. Quince is married and a racist, which means he’ll definitely sleep with Lazur. But sex isn’t what he needs. It’s exactly what he needs. He needs safety. Safe sex, if you will. Sex is the act of bleeding out and hoping the one who cut you will staunch the bleeding. Is that how people think? Or has his brain been rewired, the mental version of Rubicon’s body, ripped apart from the way people instinctively connect.
at first the realms of Ohrmazd and of Ahriman existed in Infinite Time, Endless Light above and Endless Darkness below, separated by a Void
Tick tick tick. He doesn’t remember bringing his watch. It doesn’t fit his outfit, cartoony on his bizcasual paper doll.
revelation is the explanation of both spirits together; one is he who is independent of unlimited time, because Ohrmazd and the region, religion, and time of Ohrmazd were and are and ever will be; while Ahriman in darkness, with backward understanding and desire for destruction, was in the abyss, and it is he who will not be; and the place of that destruction, and also of that darkness, is what they call the ‘endlessly dark.’ And between them was empty space, that is, what they call ‘air,’ in which is now their meeting
It’s funny how you can look at something all the time and not notice the most basic details about it. There’s a toon in the watch, some kind of hyperstylized Y2K anime animal. He tries to remember the child that bought this. Was it connected to some toyetic show, or impulsively bought on pure aesthetics, or a gift from some guessing grandparent incapable of understanding the specifics of his juvenile integration with corporate IP?
and Ohrmazd spoke to the evil spirit thus: ‘Appoint a period! so that the intermingling of the conflict may be for nine thousand years. For he knew that by appointing this period the evil spirit would be undone
He passes the fire pit again. There is no bone in the fire. This is a different fire pit. The infinity pool continues to burn in liquid crescent.
then the evil spirit, unobservant and through ignorance, was content with that agreement; just like two men quarreling together, who propose a time thus: Let us appoint such-and-such a day for a fight
A sign hangs from a door:
RESERVED BY ZHYBER VALHALLA
whatever Ohrmazd did, He did with the help of Time
new favorites at the Disney store
He passes a gleaming door marked SPA. Desert muzak plays from the other side.
IN THE SECOND TRIMILLENNIUM
He could pay someone to touch his body, in a more deniable way than hiring an escort. It would be nice to be touched, even a little.
- Aura stroke or ethereal stroke
- Nerve stroke or feathering
It’s too obscene. He can’t do this to a stranger. He can’t trust himself not to make sounds. If he was touched on his back, they’d feel it in in his erector spinae, his squirming, knotted ropes. Anywhere they touched would guide them toward unresolved wounds known only to the espers. He is certain that even if he was completely still, they would be soiled at the touch of his skin.
for, verily, Time, which is the Lord of duration, is the first creature that He created forth
This table is littered with orange peel, the first sign of life he’s seen on this floor which otherwise feels like walking through a 3D model. The white rind reminds him of exposed tendons.
Not a single person. No guest or servant or lizard.
The sense of two watch hands overlapping. In the absence of detail, it cannot be said which is the second hand, and which is the hour. He starts ticking and covers his mouth.
He turns around to see a man in a tailored white business suit. The man’s face is covered in blood.
Lazur’s wrist bends back and the strap of his watch constricts his radial veins. He has no holster, only the empty waistband of a tourist.
The man’s skin shines with a delicate crimson patina. It frames the dead lips and amber eyes like a mask. He says, “Don’t worry, it’s not my blood.” He wipes his face with a handkerchief and the sun glints off his watch, a heavy piece of expensive-looking steel. “The spa offers a plasma facial. Centrifuged blood proteins from a juvenile source. Hence the term, rejuvenate.”
Their watches tick in the silence. The other man’s mechanism is luxury quiet, like falling grains of sand. His hair is the color of oxidized butter, nearly orange in the late afternoon sun. A serious, perfect face.
After four seconds, he extends his hand and Lazur shakes it. The man’s grip is tight and perhaps a little damp from sweat or blood or merely well-moisturized.
“Calendula,” the man says.
“They say you never met a bomb you couldn’t defuse.” Tick tick tick. “One way or another.”
Lazur can’t read the man’s face or tone, warmly ambiguous.
“Understand that I’m smiling, Cortázar. Internally. Smiling causes wrinkles.”
Lazur’s face feels decayed. Really fucked up by smiling all those times.
“Hey fellas.” Quince waves, towheaded and desk pale, a scientific blend of family and field. “Sorry I took so long. Couldn’t find anyone to take our order.”
Calendula says, “Don’t apologize. The staff have been ordered home for the day. I bought the floor out.”
A disc of pale bread on a round table of black marble, like pupil and sclera inverted. The white is spattered with red.
Quince says, “We can get right to it then, seeing as you’ve already met Lazur,” pronouncing it like laser. He cocks his index finger at Calendula. “This is the CEO of Zhyber Valhalla. He’s a great friend of the agency and a great friend of democracy.”
Zhyber Valhalla. He’s seen their logo on games and military hardware.
“When local bureaucracy gets in the way, he helps us move things internationally without things getting complicated.”
The face across him is around the same age or older, but has none of his lines. The face is now swallowing a black and white capsule pill. The lips notice him. “Beta blocker. Blocks adrenaline production. Should be in the water.”
Lazur remembers those from deployment. There was a suite of drugs for shifting human machinery around. Aggression. Calm. Fall asleep, no dreams.
Quince says, “There’s a new movement gaining traction in Semi-Nova. Prolerian agitats, student rioters, they have this fantasy of privatization. Which fucks up their country’s future as a democracy and an ally and the whole sugar trade situation. But there’s a rational political base working with our boys down there, ready to defend their families and businesses against rioters. If we could get a shipment across the border, we know you sell consumer electronics there all the time.”
“A shipment,” Calendula says.
“No serial numbers. Nothing fancy. Just reliable, and lots of it.”
Calendula dips the bread in white sauce and swirls it around, leaving streaks of red. “Anything for my friends.”
Tick tick tick. Calendula looks up, was that audible? His mouth wasn’t open, but the teeth and tongue can be loud.
The amber eyes regard him. “I have a good eye for facial features.”
Lazur says, “Is that right.”
“I think our man here has Semi Novan blood in him.”
Quince says, mouth full of bread, “You figure? I always thought he was…”
“Perhaps this is too personal for him.”
“I’m good,” Lazur says.
“He’s cool,” Quince says. “He’s one of us. Right?”
Lazur says, casually, “I thought we were inspecting the land mine clearing program.”
Quince smiles and winks. Calendula tears a strip from the bread and holds it out, steam bubbles encrusted crimson. “The red is from iron oxide.”
It tastes like dried blood.
Lazur walks toward the infinity pool, unbuttoning his shirt. He needs to bury himself in something wet, a separate atmosphere without all these sensory associations.
A wheelchair sits next to the water against a backdrop of warm evening haze, dust filtering the sky red.
He hesitates, then keeps going, curving along the liquid bezel like a watch hand, time measured in seconds.
Rubicon leans back on his elbows, wearing a black bikini with platinum metal buckles, elegant as a crushed insect. Exposed like this, you can see the broken line of his body, anorexic jackal slink. Lazur remembers from his work in the field hospital; burn victims demonstrate hypermetabolism long after the initial trauma. What a needy body.
Lazur says, “What are you doing here?”
Oversized sunglasses cover Rubicon’s face, twin suns bleeding in the lenses. He looks at Lazur and the sunglasses slip, no ear to keep them up. His eyes are one-of-a-kind marbles, tortured blue glass, iridolyzed cat’s eyes. He smiles like amused roadkill.
Lazur says, “That guy. Is he bankrolling you?”
“Easy, Laz. You’re on a diplomatic mission.”
The bad feeling just got worse. “I thought he works for my government.”
“Doesn’t the moral relativity just kill you? Almost as bad as us being seen together.”
“I don’t think it’ll be the moral relativity that kills me.”
“Haha. You’re so funny.” Rubicon turns his head toward the edge, where the infinity pool falls into the charred ocean of the desert. “I love this view. This blur.” Rubicon flings his hand out, too weak to make much of a gesture of it. “Preview to the end of the world.”
“What are you building for him?” No response. “The slow bombs?”
“Yeah. Slow bombs. Super practical weapon.” The young man’s voice is sluggish and anemic.
Lazur can’t see Calendula keeping Rubicon around just for those either. The CEO seems extremely efficient. The slow bomb is the creative skunk works that Rubicon gets to do in exchange for something that will have a definite and terrible purpose.
“You look sweaty, Laz. Can I get you anything? Drink?” The catheter bag strapped to Rubicon’s thigh looks like a bag of blood in the evening sun.
Lazur says, “It’s an infinite pool. I can find somewhere else to swim.”
“Look at him. Buttoned up tight on a hot night.”
“Always trying to delay the inevitable.”
“This thing you’re working on. Is it going to kill a lot of people?”
“I’m your trolley problem, baby.”
He could kick Rubicon into the pool. He bites his lip to keep from laughing. Just punt the kid in. Probably can’t swim. But he doesn’t know what would happen if he did. The world he inhabits is that of a sundial, watching the shadows rotate around him.
Softly, firmly. “Tell me what it is.”
Rubicon’s chest tightens, but he keeps his voice under control, the same sinus saw. “The feeling you get when you look at me. That’s my dark art, creep.”
“You’re being cryptic.”
“The feeling. You get. When. You look at me. If you aren’t honest. You’ll fuck yourself over.”
“Like I’ll have cheated myself of philosophical enrichment.”
Rubicon’s toes wiggle. “Yeah. That’s exactly what I mean.”
“The feeling is terror.”
“Wow, I didn’t expect you to expose yourself like that.”
“You’re making me tell you what you already know. If that’s what you need, you can have it.”
Rubicon scratches his bony ribs. “Sure you didn’t mean horror?”
“Why would I mean horror?”
“Terror is the suspense. Horror is the reveal.”
“As in, your lacerations and burns and your fucked-up face and your fucked-up breathing. Et cetera.”
“I know what you look like. I don’t know what you’ll do. So terror is the thing, for me.”
Childish smile. “Haha yay.” His gaze darkens. “Whatever it is. The only thing I can’t handle is indifference. Because that’s when I feel this.” He traces the scar running along his skull into the corner of his eye. “There isn’t a place to rest. I have to keep moving.”
Lazur gets a pang in his heart. He hears something ticking.
A vintage watch hangs loose on Rubicon’s wrist. He notices Lazur staring and pulls the strap tight through the tang buckle. Brown leather with a scaly texture. “You like my alligator strap?”
“I feel bad for the animal.”
“See some of yourself in it?”
Lazur licks his lips. The air is so dry it seems all the water in the atmosphere has been concentrated into the infinity pool, pure as a river of mercury.
Rubicon says, “Ever hear of bomb-cured leather?”
“Sounds like an interesting material.”
“Super interesting. Maybe one day I’ll let you hang off my wrist. To remember you by.”
“I have something for your wrists too.”
“I don’t think they make them in my size. But stainless steel looks good on me.” He holds out his hands mockingly, connected at the wrist bones, palms out, fingers curled from scar tension.
Lazur studies the young man’s fingertips. The nails have dark shit under them like tar, uncharacteristically dirty. “What’s an ultra, I mean, hyper, exotic material?”
“Whatever it is. It scares you. Because at the restaurant, you were looking for a way out.”
“That never happened. You’re senile.”
“It runs in the family. But think about it. When a new class of weapon is discovered, they recruit war criminals all the time.”
“You’re trying to flip me.”
“Maybe I am.”
“Locked up in a lab for the rest of my life. Or just locked up.”
“We can work something out—”
Rubicon gives him a bitter look, eyes tinged with pink, a warning sign. “You can’t protect me, stupid.” Silence, then he laughs. “Besides. How do you know I’m not already working for them?
“Wouldn’t it be fucking. Insane. If I’d been designing artisanal black op hyperweapons for the very agency you work for? And me using you like a blast range dummy was an acceptable cost for my services?”
“That. That isn’t true. Right?”
“Hahahadfsjhjhk. Your face. Oh my God.” Rubicon tilts his head back so the sunglasses stay on, black slashed with red sun as it sinks below the horizon. “You think I’d forgive them for what happened to me?”
“Then why are you being kind of stupid and silly?”
“I don’t know why.”
Rubicon rolls onto his stomach, trailing his finger through the water. Caustics ripple across his lacerated ribs, refracted light on refracted skin, collagen tangents. His scars are ethereal under the liquid patterns, the flesh of his ass blossoming with ghostly cicatrice, black bikini sunk between the bony curves, disappearing into the darkness where inner thigh kisses. His naked back displays the scoliotic curve of his spine, a shoulder blade pulled into reverse, rib protruding, hourglass waist blown into one side, blown like glass, blown like a blast.
Lazur pans his dark gaze around, paranoid of cameras or eyeballs capturing him standing over this body. “So that’s it? You’re his pet brain now?”
Rubicon rolls back, smiling like he just scored a point. “He values me. For my mind.”
Lazur softly says, “Now what else would he value you for?”
Rubicon inhales sharply, head thrust back, jaw set hard as he can make it, air escaping from the side of his mouth, heart beating in the hollow of his chest. The tile is stained dark under his hands and where he sits. His unscathed skin must compensate for the sweat glands destroyed elsewhere, leaking from the most secret parts of him.
Something clicks and Lazur spins to look behind him.
The night lights are activating, blazing gems along the circlet of the infinity pool, still early enough to feel dissonant, harsh light mixed with the dirty cinnabar of the air. A bad ripe fog between time, separated from the reference point of the earth. The 750,000 gallons of water at their feet are treated with chemicals that make them undrinkable.
Rubicon laughs annoyingly. “Having a flashback?” Lazur turns back, hand reaching under his blazer. Rubicon flinches, then says, “You can’t get a gun past security.” His tongue hangs out red and mocking under the bug-eyed glasses. Then he gasps at the chill of steel on his membrane, tongue wedged between the sharp edges of the wire cutter.
Lazur stares at the apparatus of their barely linked bodies. Under the harsh light his wrists seem pale, melanin scratched away like a lottery ticket, veins tightly braided, flowing like wires, fueling the fingers around the cutter. Heat radiates from Rubicon’s face, as if the vascular system were closer to that shaved surface, like throbbing red tendrils in the shadow of Lazur’s head. Slowly that tongue moves, cautiously slugging across the cutter. Lazur seems to feel the boy’s pulse through his tongue, warming the rubber grips of the cutters. Even slight pressure would sever the bulging purple of the sublingual veins.
He can’t imagine a Rubicon who can’t speak. It seems like the last pinhole of light in that oubliette of flesh. Like the exact kind of ugliness he tries to prevent in his dreams.
He pulls the cutter back an inch, just the sharp tip on that tongue. He’s never seen this ghostly blue. He’s grown too pale being indoors all the time. “The veins in my wrist look like blue wires.”
Rubicon’s tongue flicks the tip of the cutter, eyes hidden by the sunglasses, insectile, snakelike. “But you know what’s inside them is red.“
The sun sinks deeper into the desert. His veins fade back to green, and the color of carbon steel heated to 625 degrees F.
“I love your watch, by the way.”
“It was a present from my mother.”
“That’s really sweet.”
Lazur withdraws the cutter, too dizzy to trust himself. “I think I’ve come in contact with a malign energy.”
“You’re so feminine and perceptive.” Rubicon’s lashes flash over the dark shades, those big teen girl sunglasses you could watch a nuclear explosion through. Electric blue eyes pulling him toward something he doesn’t understand, can’t control, wasteful and overflowing as a bomb.
Why did he try to flip him? Because it’s the only thing that redeems this trail of humiliating interactions. His last chance to make their conversations anything other than a secret.
His off-the-rack business casual threads cling in light, taunting strokes of sweat. He’s not getting anything out of Rubicon because he has no leverage. He’s like one of those trussed-up human cadavers they use to test land mines, wrapped up in duct tape hyper-bondage, just a body, any body. Dummy in a suit. And if Quince sees him with this mutilated slut, it’s over. If Lazur is toxic to the touch, Rubicon is radioactive from a mile away. He has to save himself.
Dark lenses trap Lazur in reflection, silhouetted by the harsh light, a warped Egon Schiele shadow in a suit. “Yes?”
“Don’t talk to me. Don’t think about me. Don’t let me see you ever again.”
The sunglasses slide down that earless face, exposing wide eyes with lopsided blue irises. “What?”
“If I see you, I’ll blow your thing with Calendula. I don’t care what happens.”
Lazur walks along the edge of the caustic glimmer, looking for an end to the infinity pool.
Water hits his face, plastering his dark hair and streamlining his skull, teeth outlined by a liquid muzzle. The shower blasts chlorine from his skin, washing away the flashback, the hotel exploding over his head, a taste of ash.
He is alone. Even this special attention is fading, the hyper-alertness of This Guy Wants to Kill Me. Everything breaks apart like the sand below, his mother’s love tossed in a grinder of stress, carcinogens, free radicals, DNA oxidization, until nothing remains but little pieces, irritating reminders that something strong and true was once there. Particles of his mother’s love in his vagina. He tries to feel something other than this aching hollow. His own feelings are being scrubbed as well, like this infinitely recycled water with no taste or smell or history.
He breaks free of the shower, trailing water as he walks to the counter. He picks up his blue watch and it hangs in his hand. Why doesn’t he throw it away? It only hurts to keep it here, this half-love, this foolish mistake, this reminder of his mother’s disintegrating brain.
He’ll throw it away in this desert limbo. She won’t even remember.
The lights go out.
Must be the automatic shut-off.
He looks for the switch and his hand runs along smooth wet wall.
Something glows in the dark, toxic green, tight as snake bites. He stops moving.
Radium-painted hands pierce the dark, licking at nitrogen in the air, igniting the phosphate they were mixed with, leaping up the energy bands, then crashing down in green despair.
Lazur finds the switch. He flicks it on and Calendula is there, white suit blazing cold under the harsh fluorescence, copper blond hair tarnished.
Tick tick tick. “Hey.” Lazur leans into the counter to hide his nakedness. Shoulders up, traps tight, trying to act unbothered, waiting for the man to walk past. But Calendula stands there like a fact.
Calendula wipes his shoe across the floor, a gritty scrape of sand that hurts Lazur’s teeth. “I had a thought earlier. About your origins.”
“For a long time, Semi Nova was the only place to get quartz. Until we synthesized it. The slowest weathering mineral. I admire its resistance to time.”
Another scrape. “We’re standing on an ocean of time. Pulverized quartz. Do you understand?”
“I don’t think so.”
Calendula displays his watch, radiant hands marching. “My family used to own a watch factory. The girls would paint the dials. Sucking on their brush tips to shape them into a point. Didn’t end well for them. But now the hands are safe inside the case.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“It’s a question of materials, Cortázar. Every generation people invite a deadly new element into their lives for the sake of convenience. For a taste of the future. For the belief that something more is possible.”
Lazur needs a towel. Water dribbles at his slightest movement, escaping from folded flesh or leaking from his hair. “I don’t think they ever had a choice.”
“We are slaves to materials.” Soft ticking. “Radium has a half-life of 1600 years. It’s a comforting thought.” He pauses. “Do you know what radium is?”
Lazur drips in the silence, clear beads forming in his hair and falling to the counter. “I guess you have a way of looking at it you want to tell me about.”
“It’s a bone seeker.” Calendula traces the knob of his wrist bone, just above the steel band of his watch. “The body thinks of it as calcium. It replaces the calcium in your bones with itself.”
Drip tick drip tick. “I guess you’re not here for a shower.”
“I had to see you in person. Understand what kind of man he would fixate on.”
“So this is about Rubicon.”
“You told him to stop. I was surprised. He seemed to actually care about what you think.” Tktktk. Calendula checks his watch, as if their conversation was scripted. “His work has been suffering for it. He gets distracted.”
Lazur’s neck tendon swims under the surface of his skin, betraying his sideways glance toward the exit. Calendula perfectly mirrors his movement, tendon for tendon, and they are reading the surface of each other’s bodies, Calendula dry, hips and elbows and heartbeat tightly muffled under virgin wool trousers and modal silk dress shirt. Lazur dripping, twisted on himself to conceal his nakedness with nudity, showing only his flank.
“You’re slightly more attractive than I expected you to be. Is that why he hasn’t killed you yet?”
His skin itches, flooded with histamines from the hot shower. “What do you want?”
“I need you to do or say something that completely breaks your connection with him.”
Hard snapping drip from the shower, the kind that takes a long time to build, agonizing the attention. Water torture drip.
“I realize I am asking an unrealistic thing of you. Because you are a man who does things in a certain way.”
Calendula walks down the row of showers, twisting the stainless steel handles until the entire row is spraying behind him.
“Nevertheless, I have to put you in a place where this happens.”
Lazur turns his head to the side, trying to hide from the fact of his own exposure. “Do you usually get your way?”
“In the end.” Calendula pauses. “But I didn’t come here to threaten you.”
“More of a promise thing, right.”
Calendula’s lips widen in another non-smile. “Are you familiar with the dear enemy effect? When territorial species understand each other’s territory, they’re less likely to waste effort on displays of aggression. This is the outcome I wanted.”
Lazur scratches his chest slowly, avoiding sudden movement. “You’re mistaken about us. I treat him like shit.”
“Do you know how much Rubicon endured from his father before finally scattering him across the ocean?” Calendula glides closer, the light rolling across the metal band of his watch. “I saw footage of the Fuchsia World Mall incident. Your lips moving. You feed him, in small ways. You can’t help it.”
“I keep myself alive.”
“Life is never enough. For anyone.”
“I told him never to talk to me again.”
“You could break his bones and it wouldn’t matter. You have to break his heart.”
A light sweet headache pinches Lazur between the eyes. “Whatever you’re planning, it must be important. If you’re that worried about my influence.”
“Would you agree that a thing divided between two shares becomes less than itself?”
A cloud of steam gusts between them. “You’re talking about his soul.”
Calendula says, “Statistically you come from a Roman Catholic background. Are you religious?”
“Then what is a soul?”
Lazur shrugs, looking sideways at the man past the swell of his shoulder, eyelids heavy after the hot shower. “I don’t know. But this thing you’re talking about. There aren’t many other ways to put it.”
“You have the experience to know there’s nothing so romantic in the world. I see it in your face. The disappointment cut by collagen breakdown.”
The steam is very hot now. Lazur’s watch hangs in his hand, plastic fogged. A bead of sweat melts from under his armpit, tracing down his ribs. “He still has the chance to be something else.”
“You saw his body earlier. In detail. Do you think that kind of body is capable of anything else?” The showers hiss behind Calendula, a wall of steam fraying the edges of his luxury outline. “The decision was made a long time ago. Minerals are formed, trapped in veins. The only choice that remains is the use of those materials.”
Lazur pulls his watch around his wrist, strapping it tight. He stands there, drops of water falling slowly from his fingertips, heart beating with each tick. “It’s not that simple.”
“Then you’re a complication.”
Calendula takes his suit off and folds it onto the counter, running his hand across to smooth it out. He looks at Lazur and says, “You got drunk.”
Calendula steps close enough to make Lazur back up, bare feet suctioning on the tile. “You slipped and fell.”
Lazur breathes faster, eyebrows clenched over harrowed eyes.
“The hot shower ran all night. Macerated your flesh.”
The watch slides over Calendula’s knuckles, shimmering metal gripped firm.
“Which made it difficult to conduct an autopsy.”
Calendula puts his hand on Lazur’s head, the other hand rolling into a fist. The gesture is so calm that Lazur almost fails to react, as if he was an animal being slaughtered. He slips free, dark wet hair slicking through Calendula’s fingers. His foot skids and he throws out his arms for balance. The steel watch hits ice cold on his jaw, a scrape of the knurled bezel.
He lands on the floor and the tendons above his calves spring out, hamstring twitching, the sinew of his thigh glimmering with the vibration of his knees banging the floor. The lining of his cheek bleeds where his teeth cut him, gums sore and throbbing.
Calendula shakes his wrist out, the watch loose, buckle unhinged. He snaps the deployant clasp shut with a snap. Blood drips through the steel segments. “Don’t worry. It’s medical grade superalloy steel. And the glass is scratchproof.”
Lazur looks up to see the underside of Calendula’s shoe, lifted to stomp his face. He grabs it, pushing the man’s leg back. Calendula twists out of his shoe, grabbing a sink for support. Lazur lurches up and flings the hard leather sole at the man’s head and runs into the steam, showers raining hot across his back.
The man clearly has a personal trainer and a private gym and supplements and if you’ll kindly recall a fresh injection of twink blood, but don’t let that intimidate you—
He looks back and Calendula is gone, dark shoes abandoned in the steam. Bare feet echo, too soft to place the direction.
Tktktktk. TTK. He checks his knee. Skinned, not broken. He hears the other man and he turns and feels something between his legs and realizes Calendula tried to grab his balls and only the most basic reflex kept him from a fatal testicular torsion. Of course you tried to protect yourself in that softest place, which is why your flinch position coincides with a flash of glass and steel, his watch keeping your time.
He grabs Calendula’s arm just before the watch hits his windpipe and their muscles scream like tire burnouts, stray droplets from the nearby shower tickling and stinging.
His grip on Calendula’s wrist is tight enough to take his blood pressure. The man is chemically calm, pulse at a leisurely trot, pupils normal, beta blocked, reptilian.
You can act rationally. Outwit my animal body. All I have is adrenaline. This terror that I fight.
His muscles contract faster than thought, a blur of limbs desperate slapping thrusting, Calendula hammering Lazur’s adrenalized flesh with steel, then the water squirts under their feet and Lazur flings the man into the wall, was it a slap or a crack, hard to tell in the wet echo.
Calendula is motionless under the spray of the shower, golden hair across his eyes, corroded as the water clumps and eats light. He slides limply along the wall on his silk shirt shoulder, then pushes off with a sudden force, grabbing Lazur by the hair and wrenching him under the hot water. Lazur thrashes blindly, wriggling out of the man’s grasp and spinning disoriented trying to block the next attack. He wipes his eyes just in time to see droplets shattering across the steel watch. His body tenses to leap away or curl up, fold against the pain—
That would be the rational thing.
He takes it on the jaw, flinging his foot out at the same time. The kick knocks Calendula against a shower handle, metal knob jammed into the man’s ribs, forcing a deep aching sound of pain. He doubles over, staggering forward, then grabs Lazur, pulling himself upright with hands around waist then fingers digging under shoulder blades as hot blood fills Lazur’s mouth. Calendula’s dress shirt is soaked tight to his chest, lungs swelling as he starts to say something.
Blood hits Calendula’s teeth, a wet shock of salt that paints the back of his throat, lips spattered red. A strand of pink saliva connects their mouths, the translucent arc of Lazur’s bleeding spit.
Lazur rasps, “Now you have some. Semi Novan blood in you.”
They break apart, Calendula gagging on the bitter iron drip, Lazur sucking air into his taxed lungs while he can. As the other man circles him again, he tries to stay upright, hands hanging in front of him as if shattered, too fucked to even ball them into fists, head hanging to the side, blood running from the corner of his mouth.
Calendula says, “I think if I came over there, there’s a fifty one percent chance of me killing you. And vice versa.”
The showers rain hypnotically over their harsh breathing.
“Take a long vacation. Enjoy your PTO. Don’t talk to the boy. Don’t humor him. I’ll take care of the rest. And we can be dear enemies.”
Lazur tries to stand up straight but his abdomen cramps, all he can do is maintain eye contact and keep his teeth out. If he speaks he would just choke on his own air, or maybe throw up the local delicacy.
His eyes squeeze shut from the pain, then he opens them. Steam rolls around him, dizzying and endless. He is alone.
Glass balcony above a sea of quartz. Rubicon in his wheelchair, moonwhite and nightblack. His hands lay in his lap, fingers missing or curling inward, perpetually and painfully trained into mobility. His scars wrap like wet leather around the delicate tissue underneath, heavy and clenching and suffocating. When he reaches for something, he has to stretch the fused protein, the collagen slashed into a single direction.
He values me. For my mind.
Now what else would he value you for?
The words punched through his scars into the raw flesh underneath. He didn’t expect to feel so sensitive about it. Maybe because he was so physically exposed, dressing like a whore, his classic lack of impulse control is a bad look in this new body. He could see the vomit look on the man’s face. It doesn’t matter. The technician doesn’t matter. There is no cosmic dualist significance to their relationship. Juvenile projection, a flash of hormones, ephemeral as an explosion, daddy issues like used tissues. Dead-end dipshit. Is that what made him safe to fixate on? A broken version of the damaging object. A doll of a dad. Bend the action figure into weird poses until you get bored.
If I see you, I’ll blow your thing with Calendula. I don’t care what happens.
He would, too. What does he have to live for? Aging single male kill yourself biological imperative suicide bomber—
Don’t talk to me. Don’t think about me. Don’t let me see you ever again.
As if he was somehow worthy of pursuit. What a narcissist. Try to blow a guy up a few times and he gets ideas. He’s just a bomb-sniffer dog, and he has to be put down like one. Worse. A dog could never be so cruel.
Lazur lays on the floor of his room, minibar bottles scattered around him. The carpet is soft under his bruised ass. His face hurts where time hit him.
He grabs a shooter of 90 proof blue raspberry and goes out on the balcony and the desert wind hits him, cooling the sweat on his skin. The desert is vast and dark and he can’t tell it from the ocean.
He looks down and nothing is there, just a drop. He gets vertigo, swaying on the glass floor. These luxury places always have some glass you can look through. Look down on the scum in the streets. Imagine yourself falling. Demonstrate mastery over the plebs and death. He hates everything the glass implies.
This glass is the superheated version of that sand. Blinding chaos transformed to clear order. Just like we had the same flesh. Ripped apart. Differentiated.
He drains the bottle, sweet synthetic fire down his throat. His gaze pans down the frozen waves of sand to the hard concrete of the reception courtyard. It’s not like he’s going to do anything, but when visiting any location, you should check if the fall would kill you. You should really think about it. Roll it around in your mind. It’s just common sense.
When he looks directly at his feet, balconies cascade down the face of the building, a sheer slope of glass fins. He blinks rapidly, tickticktick. Rubicon is below him in a wheelchair, staring at the desert dark. He’s naked with a big white towel wrapped around him like a blanket, legs sticking out gaunt.
Lazur stands there, bare soles edged with dirt, then sets the minibar bottle down with a hard click.
Rubicon looks up. His eyes widen, sapphire blue against dried blood rubies. As he takes in Lazur’s bruised body, a stupid delighted smile spreads.
Lazur kneels on the glass. Desert wind blows through the gap under the railing, drying his soaked black hair. His lip is swollen and dried blood sticks to his chin. Every surface he touches tells him he’s hurt. He’s still shaking from the adrenaline. The alcohol burns in his head and chest. He grabs his cock.
See this? You’ll never have one of these.
Do you remember how good it felt?
Rubicon looks sick, but doesn’t turn away.
Calendula says something from inside. Rubicon says, “Just enjoying the view.” He leans back in his wheelchair, blond hair falling over the headrest, lips relaxed and peeled, skewed teeth protruding. He allows the towel to slide from his shoulders, exposing the lacerations across his collarbones, scars slithering down his chest.
Stiffness builds in Lazur’s hand, the soft grabbed parts splitting into swollen bloodhard pieces.
The towel falls to the floor and Rubicon lays bare-ass on the wheelchair, a pool of shadow between his legs. He watches that battered technician touch himself on the other side of the glass, dark movements like a sleep demon. The age line on his neck looks like a buried collar of wire. Rubicon’s hand vibrates in place, knowing there’s no point reaching for the phantom hardness, the pink outline glowing from his stunted crotch, neon with cortical heat.
extremity injury, traumatic amputation, fractures, crush injuries, compartment syndrome, burns, cuts, lacerations
When a body part is destroyed, the neighboring neurons on that corresponding part of the somatosensory cortex cannibalize the useless neurons for the parts that remain. On that strip of cortex, like a junkyard compacted version of a person, the genitals are above and below the feet.
Rubicon’s foot thrusts into the moonlight, a red spark tracing the curve of his sole, the sweatiest, most sensitive part of his body, pale and soft from wheelchair use, hundreds of thousands of nerves and sweat glands concentrated into the unharmed glabrous skin. The balls of his feet burn wet on the floor, trembling with the frustrated signals of broken nerve glass embedded in his pubic mound.
foreign body, perforated globe, foreign body, air embolism, fractures
Lazur stares down very seriously, working the mechanism between his legs. His beaten face makes him feel like the deformed one, a wet brute. Rubicon’s body is cradled in his eyes, radioactive in the moonlight.
hemorrhage, A-V fistulas (source of air embolism), epithelial damage, aspiration pneumonitis, sepsis
The terror in his muscles escapes in stinging beads of poison, inflaming his thigh tendons, dissolving his fingertips into his slimy cock.
I have been silent and afraid for so long under this deep, deep weight. I can’t imagine living without it. When I look at it directly. When I release my fear like a wild animal. I open up inside. I pant with relief.
bowel perforation, ruptured liver, ruptured spleen, mesenteric ischemia from air embolism
I wonder how long until he destroys me. The longer you drink from the bottle, the less potent the Molotov cocktail.
circulatory cardiac contusion, myocardial infarction from air embolism
The glass shines with sweat, dried blood revived and smeared, painting with the desperate movements of his body.
shock, vasovagal hypotension, peripheral vascular injury
I don’t know what Rubicon sees. But he’s a good judge of materials. So I must have explosive potential.
tymphanic membrane rupture, ossicular disruption, cochlear damage
Rubicon’s ass squirms on the seat of his wheelchair, rubbing sweat into the vinyl, scar-trapped perspiration forced through his sheltered anal glands. The dry wind carries up the sweet chemical smell of boy ass on vinyl.
CNS injury, concussion, closed and open brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury
Lazur will lose control. His nerve sensations are as tightly localized as the current through a wire, electric dumb danger trips through the dorsal nerve of his penis. His non-jerking hand splays across the floor, hitting the side of the balcony, folding his fingers back. His glans glides across the glass in a smear of precum, legs shaking.
renal injury, renal contusion, laceration, acute renal failure due to rhabdomyolysis, hypotension, and hypovolemia
Rubicon looks like he needs to throw up, eyes glazed, a hot seed trapped in his crotch like a bullet that can’t be taken out without bleeding to death. He presses down on the damp skin just above his pubic mound, rubbing his hips around the ruin. His attention is forced back to the working cock above him, giving it a frustrated show, arching his back, abdomen taut with bladder pressure. The moonlight stops just short of his crotch, shadow dark as the black bikini, teasing exposure if something a million miles or an inch away shifted position. His mouth opens red and wet, eyes frustrated lines, urine squirting inside his catheter bag, the plastic swollen with lunar radiance, bubbling with the thwarted drainage of his razed mound.
hemothorax, pneumothorax, pulmonary contusion, blast lung
Lazur rolls on his side, shooting through his fingers. Cum hits the railing and drips through the gap, splatting at Rubicon’s feet.
Calendula murmurs something from inside.
Rubicon sticks his leg out, tendons straining. His bare foot touches the cum and he wipes it slick across the glass, toes wiggling wet.
Calendula walks out on the balcony and Lazur freezes. The man looks at the glistening streak on the floor. “What’s that?”
“I crushed a snail.”
“Didn’t know they had snails here.”
“They bring them up every day. Bajillions of snails. For the ambiance. And they all die at the end of the day.”
Calendula looks up. Nothing remains but the smear of a desert snail on glass.
He glances back at Rubicon, curled up in the wheelchair, wetness concealed, a glandless wasteland scarring his back.
Lazur needs a shower. He smells like wet, abused dog. He is curled up naked on the floor. Nothing but carpet has touched his skin. The sheets are too white and clean to stain.
The sound of running water fucks him up. The humidity sends him back to last night. He runs it cold and the association lessens. He washes quickly between his legs and blasts the blood from his face. His spine slowly straightens, knuckles uncurling.
He comes out and notices the complimentary candy on his pillow, shiny red foil. He puts it in the pocket of his blazer.
The breakfast table is covered with enough food for ten people. Quince is already eating. Calendula sits down stiffly, one hand on his ribs. Lazur’s hair is combed back, eyebrows straight and dark, hands resting folded on the leg over his knee. Purple bruises splotch his mouth and cheek.
Quince looks over. “Christ. Your face.”
Lazur sucks on his lip, talking around the swell. “I fell in the shower.”
A look of cautious disbelief.
“I was drunk.”
Quince relaxes. “That’ll do it.”
“It’s that tempestuous Semi Novan spirit,” Calendula says, one hand covering the other like a discarded glove, ticking muffled.
Quince points, mouth full, gesturing like an eternal truth has been reaffirmed, nodding like you gotta hand it to em.
Lazur takes out the candy that was on his pillow and unwraps it, loudly crinkling in the silence. He bites the chocolate shell and red jelly spurts out, clinging to his lips, stinging the place where the fat split open. He stares at Calendula, teeth streaked with iron oxide, and swallows the sweet bitter mess.
The only movement on Calendula’s face is the morning sun rolling across his eyes.
Quince digs a nacho chip into a bowl of caviar. “Pretty light snack, Laser.”
Calendula wets a handkerchief with his mouth and wipes the case of his watch.
Quince says, “So what time can we expect—”
“A week from now.” Calendula picks at a red speck in the milling.
Lazur says, “I thought you already got your clock cleaned.”
Calendula looks up. Quince is taking pictures of the food, focused on his phone. Calendula’s lip twitches, stiff with neurotoxin, then peels into a rictus smile. He covers his mouth as if a knife had slashed his lips, then turns his eyes up, amber orbs framed by blemishless periorbital skin, laser-smooth.
A ringing sound. Quince gets up to take a call.
Calendula takes his handkerchief and wipes the ruby shine from Lazur’s mouth. Lazur sits very still, taken by surprise, swollen lip throbbing under the careful touch. This close to the man’s watch, he can hear the pallet fork hitting the escape wheel, steel teeth clicking, ticking.