The drag queen plants manicured hands on the sticky tabletop and leans forward, biceps bulging, eyelashes flashing. Cornelius knows his intent before he speaks, the question painted across one cocked brow.
“I ain’t love-story material, polar-bear?” The drag queen’s voice is deep with a drawl Cornelius can’t place.
“Sorry, I’m meeting a friend.”
“Do I know her?”
Seeing as she doesn’t exist, I doubt it.
He bores of Cornelius’s stoicism and leaves, long legs kicking up the hem of a floor length skirt that looks made of bright green paper. Trot, trot, trot, back to the stage he goes, blowing the bartender a kiss before climbing back up to a mic and moving his lips more or less to the fast words and the cacophony of an orchestra that sounds like it’s harboring in the apocalypse, again.
Purple liquid swirls in glass mugs, and girls and boys and things in between all get drunk and howl at the moons.
They don’t call all cyborgs that, just the rich ones who can afford the white metal from the volcano mines. He ought to be flattered, ought to be proud — or at least pretentious about it, show it off a little, because that’s what they expect.
More purple liquid but he has a metal liver and half a metal brain so only half the headache in the morning when dawn strikes.
Or is it morning now?
Cornelius looks at his wrist — the real one, with purple veins and orange-red freckles — but his watch isn’t there.
The voice takes the seat across the table. Bare chest and black leather pants unbuttoned just enough to show off something red and lacy underneath. A cigarette between two fingers holding it like a tool, not an accessory. His skin is dark like stumbling across a lake at night, impossible to see the bottom.
…two in the morning.
It takes him that long to register the voices comment; the hour.
I’ve had too much…
“Saw you looking for a watch.”
“You a dancer?”
A nod. A puff. Lavender smoke. His eyelids are painted gold.
“You’re not dancing?” Then: “I’m not looking for a date.”
He laughs and it’s as dark as his skin. “Relax, polar-bare, I don’t want to turn you into a rug — you wouldn’t go with the decor in my living room. I just want a beer and a smoke and a break.”
They share the silence, passing it back and forth between them. He finds he wants to talk after all.
“You from around here?”
More lavender smoke, this time a ring that halo’s his face. “Here? Where’s that?”
He shrugs white-metal shoulders. “Point.”
A thin wisp of a smile. “Are we playing a game?”
Cornelius stands, wanting out. He isn’t looking for a date, just someone to talk to.
Is that why I came in here? To talk?
“Whoa, man, you about toppled right over.” And he doesn’t sound like a drag queen anymore, just a man helping a drunk find his feet. A long arm wraps around his back. His own metal limb is perched on bare, lean shoulders.
“Come on then. We’ll split a cab. And I mean it. Splits. Those sky-divers aren’t cheap, and you look like you can afford it.”
They make an ungraceful procession toward the door. Cornelius assumed that’s the direction they’re headed, but he’s looking at the floor, at ruby red heels.
“How you walk in those?” He slurs.
Outside the bar they stand together on the grate sky-walk. He feels unsteady and holds onto the building like it’s the side of a cliff — and it is. Over a hundred stories down — and they’re nowhere near the top.
“Polar-bear.” It’s not a slight this time and it’s not masquerading as endearment either. “I thought you boys were built to hold your liquor.”
“Not built. Born,” he says, still clinging to the wall, feeling philosophical.
Purple ash turns black and tumbles down to ruby toes and down, down, through the grates.
“We’re all built — maybe not of metal though.”
Shrug. “Love. Loss. Loneliness, mostly.”
He laughs. “How could anyone be lonely in this damn place?” Arms thrown out to encompass the lights, the sound, the human hive buzzing well into the eternal night. “It’s the seventh circle.”
“You tell me.”
There is a click-click as he blinks at the dancer. His one electronic eye capturing every moment, downloading it, processing it, uploading it to sit in a file on a desktop across town, the only source of light in his apartment for his orange kitten to prowl by.
“No one walks into a drag bar like The Rheingold in Mid Level on a Tuesday night if they aren’t a ferocious shade of lonely,” says the dancer.
A sky-diver halts in front of them like it crashed into an invisible wall and they fight a couple women in plaid skirts, too old to actually be prep-school girls, for the back seat. Victorious and feeling a little better for their small triumph, both ware something the other recognizes as a smile but damned if anyone else would.
“Upper crust, love,” he says, sounding like a drag queen again and batting dark eyelashes at the mirror. “77 & Oland.”
“Fine, fine — ”
The buildings pass in blurs of neon light around them. Cornelius never learned to drive himself, scares the piss out of him. How do they see? How do they not run into anything?
“Mostly all automatic now-a-days.” The drag Queen’s smoking again. “The driver is ‘just in case’. We like a man behind the machine. Makes us feel in control.”
“You a telepath?” Cornelius asks, registering a chill, his metal body too rigid to indulge it.
Long drag. Puff. The cab fills with a lavender haze. Dark eyes blink again, out the window this time, flirting with the blur of the world outside.
They share silence again. No, play tug of war with it.
“You have a cat?”
“A real one?”
“You want to see?”
Two parallel vertical lines form right above his nose where his sculpted eyebrows try to kiss each other.
“I really wasn’t looking for a date either, say the drag queen.
“Cats make you feel less lonely.”
“Who said I was lonely?”
“I insinuated — ”
“What are you made of then?”
… “Tonight? Starlight and bullshit, I guess. I’d love to see your cat.”
“So it is real — driver!”
Eyes and a mustache twitch back and forth in the review.
“Old Town. 82 Pearstall street,” Cornelius mumbles.
A low whistle. More smoke. “You are rich.”
“You live ten levels above me.”
“Yeah, in a box.”
Silence again, shared again.
Should I clear my mind? Do I have anything to hide? No, but I don’t like the lookin’.
A sideways glance of suspicion but the dancer doesn’t pay him any attention. Puff. Another whistle of awe.
“What? You never seen it before?” he asks, incredulous. You don’t work down town and never see the city from a sky-diver.
“Every day of my life. Never seen anything else — ain’t that amazing?”
“Maybe. Maybe what else is out there wouldn’t amaze you.”
A snort. “You sound like you read books.”
The mustache speaks. “Pearstall. 82.”
They get out separate doors. Slam. Slam. Feet land on grate and ruby heels go tck, tck, tck. The sky-diver is gone. Cornelius feels the tingle on his right bicep, a notification of payment. He brings it up, seeing it in front of his electronic eye while the brown one looks up the synthetic stone steps to the synthetic wood door painted a light shade of indigo.
“Looks like an old movie,” the dancer says. “Too bad there’s no rain tonight.”
“Rain for what?”
“For dancing in.” Tck. Tck. Tck.
Three steps and a key in the lock. Metal fingers fumbling.
“How old are you, polar-bear? A key, really?”
He takes the tool and flirts with the lock the same way he seems to flirt with life — and get what he wants. Click.
The lights come on one at a time. Soft yellow.
“That ambiance, though. How much it cost you?”
“Fair amount. The white ones give me a headache.”
He laughs, somewhere lighter on the spectrum this time. “Your head must always hurt.”
There’s a tiny bell running down the hall. Attached to it are orange ears, a pink nose and gray whiskers.
The dancer stops moving, stops breathing. Face to face with something more graceful and powerful than himself. He drops to his knees and holds out two large, dark hands.
Where’d his cigarette go?
The kitten approaches. She knows she is a lioness. She doesn’t bother to smell or lick his offered fingers but bursts forward, head pushing against his flattened palms, tiny voice purring, demanding praise and supplication.
“What’s its name?”
“It hasn’t got one. Just…Kitten, I guess.”
“That’s not a name. What about — ”
He frowns so deeply the dancer hears it and laughs.
“Oh, come on, I’m not going to give it a stage name. How about…”
“Human.” He picks up the cat and lets it nuzzle against one sharp cheek bone. He winks. “You do read too many books. You’re quite the philosopher. Can I feed him?”
Two little silver bowls on the kitchen floor. One for food. One for —
“You have milk!” The dancer’s voice breaks out of it’s drawling resonance.
“Just for the cat.”
“If I could afford milk…” He takes off one heel, then the other and drops the rubies to the white artificial tiles. “You know they’re giving pets, real ones, to robots over in Draught Point? Says it teaches them how to be more human.”
“Should teach humans to be more human.”
“That’s what the robot pets are for.” He stretches, his back arching like Human sometimes does under the heat lamp. The button on his pants is done up now, red lace still peaking above the waist band. “You have a sweater?”
“Why didn’t you bring a coat?”
“I was going home, wasn’t I? Didn’t plan on being hung up at some rich man’s place in the Middle level.”
“That must happen to you a lot.”
The wispy smile returns but then he says: “I’m just a dancer. Not even that, most nights.”
Human bounces ahead of Conelius on the stairs and he takes a gray sweater from the closet. An old sweater but warm and small enough not to hand off the dancer like a sack.
The kitten mews for attention but he sits down at the desktop and plugs in, the tiny needle like connection jutting out from his wrist. Most of the processes are remote but every now and then he has to connect to the mainframe, patch in and do updates. But he stalls them for tonight. He doesn’t want to keep his guest waiting.
It’s quiet on the stairs. He has a feeling he’ll arrive at the bottom and find the dancer has gone. There’s some relief in that but disappointment too.
In the kitchen the dancer is still there, shadow like, standing by the back door that should look out on a little back yard but instead has a view of the abyss, the hundreds of stories piled beneath and across from them, the roads, if they could be called that, like canyons stretching down into dark, dark nothingness.
Human is in his arms, purring, rubbing her head against his shoulder.
He has a cigarette between his fingers, unlit.
“You mind?” He asks without turning.
He looks at the cat then tucks the cigarette behind his left ear. The lobe is pierced with twin gold studs.
He looks back out the glass door, back at the damp, never-waning lights of the city.
Their reflections seem less to stare back at them than through them. The dancer and the cat seemed not to notice.
Cornelius’s own reflection is more machine than man. White metal meeting pale, heavily freckled flesh. His orange-blond hair shaved short. Three vertical lines shaved into the side not covered by interlocking metal plates. Both eyes blink, one glowing faintly in the dim kitchen.
His companion is hardly visible in the window. Black pants and black skin. A small silver tattoo of a decorative sugar spoon lays horizontal across an upper rib.
“What’s your name?” He hands him the sweater.
The dancer leans forward and lets the cat out of his arms. Four tiny feet pad across the floor to lick at the white liquid in the bowl.
He accepts the sweater and shrugs it on over his head.
Cornelius snorts. “You’re real name.”
“I lost it.”
“A chess match. You play?”
“I know how.”
The dancer turns and shoves his hands in the front pockets of the sweater as if he might find a tunnel through them to somewhere else.
“You have a home system?”
He nods. “Computer.”
The dancer smiles with only half of his lips. “Computer? How creative.”
“It’s simple. And I don’t like machines that have names. Chess.”
A holographic chess board appears on the island. The dancer goes around the other side and takes up one of the stools, somehow sitting on it like it’s a recliner.
“Do you have a name, machine man?” One eyebrow cocked and a hand poised over a white pawn.
Pawn to E4.
The hologram glitches, shimmering like tossed confetti as it moves with Knight Mare’s fingers. It became solid again upon it’s new square.
“What were you before you were a machine, Cornelius?”
Cornelius brings a white meal finger to the board and taps a square, mimicking his opponents move.
Pawn to E5.
A classic opening. A safe game.
Pawn to D3.
“Get blown up down there?”
A blunt question from such graceful lips.
“Yes. That’s why I’m rich. That’s why I’m broken.”
Cornelius frees his Queen.
Knight moves. Another pawn.
Cornelius analyzes the board. His electronic eye scans and compares the moves so far to commonly played openings via a chess database. His real eye blinks at the squares and consults memories stored in flesh.
“You’re not playing the game I thought you were,” Cornelius says, taking his turn.
The drag queen moves a Knight. Shrugs.
“No one ever is.”
The movement of the incorporeal pieces makes the dim light on the countertop sparkle with holographic glitter.
“We’re all pretenders. All something of this and three quarters of that. Half robot, half man — half man, half woman.” He considers his next move a moment longer, moving further from his planned opening, advancing into enemy territory.
“Not a whole of anything to be found.”
Cornelius takes a pawn. Then a Bishop.
Knight kept his Queen defended until the last, until it was too late for Cornelius to see his intention. Then the game was over, and the King laid horizontal on the board, glitching, sparkling.
Calm hangs around Knight’s shoulders like a cloak. His teasing grace departed, his easy smile dissipated. His gaze drifts to meet his defeated opponent.
Cornelius can see himself reflected in Knight’s dark pupils. He knows, can sense in the man’s intense stare, that Knight can see his own reflection too, in the polished surface of Cornelius’ metal face.
He blinks, gold eye shadow twinkling like the chess piece. Then he stands and puts his hands back in the pockets of the loaned sweater. He pulls the cigarette from behind his ear and lights it with a lighter from the too-tight pocket of his pants.
“Sorry little lady,” he mumbles around the cigarette as Human twines her body between his ankles.
He lets out a long breath of purple smoke. Earlier, Cornelius had thought the lights had turned the colour but there was no such lighting here.
As Knight stands, slouching slightly, bare feet wiggling on the tiles, a shadowed hand running through dark hair, Cornelius can’t help but think this isn’t the creature he met in the bar.
Cornelius is hesitant to speak, to break the silence that is already a familiar thing between them, but he can’t help himself. He see’s something he missed before in this new, strange acquaintance.
“You sound like you read books,” he says. “Could you recommend a good one?”
A smile. Dark, charming. The queen slithering back into her crown.
“I’ve got to be going. Come back to the bar sometime,” Knight says.
“Well play again sometime.
“Have we been playing a game?”
He’s already halfway to the door. Human sees him out.
Cornelius waves a hand through the chess board and the pieces vanish.
A good way to spend an evening.
Human returns, her hostess duties done, and hops into his lap. He runs a hand along her spine, down her tail, feeling her warmth and the fluttering of her small heart.
Purple smoke still lingered in the kitchen.
Hours pass like this. The sun comes up, unbeknownst to much of the city, much of the world. Somewhere, Knight Mare is sleeping. Somewhere, the multitudes are waking, still enslaved to a glowing ball of light they never see.
Cornelius looks again at his reflection int the window, then the reflection of the reflection in his face and the window and back again.
Just another face in the crowd. Just another face in the crowd.