It isn’t about the air. Everyone thinks it is, but it’s not. The air is beautiful and salty sweet, but it’s meaningless after the comedown. It’s about the dreaming. That’s all there really is.
My first time was a girl. Her name was Aida and her skin was blued out with cyanospore, eyes black as the feeling of airless lungs. When I looked at them I could see an afterglow, like the world was reflecting through her. And it was. I could tell.
She was one of them, of course. It didn’t take long for me to figure that out. I was wandering home from the airbar and I didn’t see her coming, I didn’t see anything at all. Then, the wind hit like the inertia of a car crash and my mind went empty as my head met the wall. When I remembered where I was, there were hands against my shoulders and brick against my back. I couldn’t breathe through her mouth. Her tongue pressed between my lips like she was searching for something, but she didn’t find it. Kept looking. When she pulled away I choked and gasped.
“You’re dreaming,” she told me. And I was.
I don’t know why she chose me. I woke up in the alley covered in sweat, and my mouth was bitter with her aftertaste. I picked myself up and stumbled home. My legs felt like water. The back of my head throbbed for days.
Aida, said the owner of the airbar. She’s a regular. A Dreamer.
The drugs didn’t bring her back. For weeks, I inhaled combinations of sweet-smelling fumes, but the streets remained empty. She wasn’t missing, of course. She found other people in their airdrunk sleepwalking, but never me. I waited. She didn’t come.
I looked for her. I became better at dreaming, and gradually others appeared. Boys, girls, in every color of dreaming. Old ones, young ones. Some led me to forgotten places and some whispered in languages I didn’t speak.
Two weeks later, the owner of the airbar took me aside. You aren’t right for her, he said.
I didn’t believe it. More air. Always more air. The Dreamers became malicious, laughing at me, tearing my clothing and wrapping their fingers around my throat.
She isn’t coming, he said, but I knew he was lying.
They wouldn’t let go. The air was sour now. It tasted like sulphur and gasoline.
One night, after hours of breathing, a green-skinned boy led me down Broadway towards the beacon light of a hovercab. I woke up bruised and broken, gasping through spasms of blinding pain. I crawled to the sidewalk and vomited to a silent unconsciousness. When I woke up, my mouth was sticky with blood.
“You’re dreaming,” she said, but when I forced my eyes open everything was dark. She was right. She had always been right. Of course it’s about the dreaming. That’s all there really is.
Uchenna watched his eight-year-old daughter Nat charge into the surf. She let out a piercing cry that was one part scream and three parts laugh as soon as the water hit her bare skin.
“It’s so cold!” she said, adjusting her bright red and yellow goggles. Nat grabbed her arms and gave herself and exaggerated shake. “Brrrr!”
“She shouldn’t be out in that,” Corrina said, and drew her shawl closer around her neck. “It isn’t good for her.”
“You lathered that gunk on her–what is that, SPF four-zillion? She’s got her goggles on, she’s fine.” Uchenna shifted on their shared towel. “She’s fine. It’s the beach.”
“She shouldn’t be in the water.”
“We haven’t been to the beach in years, Cor. Let the girl play.”
“Don’t you even! Just don’t. I am not the bad guy here. I’m surprised you’re not worried about our daughter’s safety.” Corrina turned her head suddenly, surprising Uchenna. The scars that edged her eye-sockets stood in sharp contrast from her white skin.
“Nat’s fine,” Uchenna said. He scratched at the tattoo of a gleaming rocket ship on his bicep and turned away from his wife. “She’s got her goggles on. The water’s only bad for your eyes.” Corrina scrunched her face up, but said nothing.
“You used to liked the beach, Cor. We got married here.”
Corrina exhaled. “It was different then.”
“Not so different. Wasn’t that long ago. Remember? There was that bagpiper…”
“We did not have a piper. We had a violinist, and my sister sang.”
“No, no. There was a piper on the beach. He was just walking along the edge.”
“That was a different beach.” Corrina pulled her giant-brimmed hat closer to her ears. “I worry about Nat. She shouldn’t be in the waves like that.”
“I’ll go down their with her. We’ll walk down the surf,” Unchenna said, in response to Corrina’s expression that might have been called a glare, once.
“Be sure to take your goggles,” she said, handing him his green and black pair. Even without eyes, Corrina knew exactly where Uchennaâ€™s hands were. “Just in case you have to go in, or something.”
Uchenna felt a bit like alien, detachedly staring at the other denizens of the beach through his goggles’ tinted lenses. But he couldn’t help it. He watched his daughter dodging the incoming surf. There was a small boy intently digging a hole for not other reason to dig a hole. There were a handful of people bundled up, like Corrina, afraid of the sun and the water. Teenagers, afraid of only each other, nervously beginning a dance that would go on for the rest of their lives. And there were the hardcore swimmers, easily identified by their chalk-white ocean-damaged skin and hair. Some of them had scars like Corrin;, red lines like tears from when their eyes, turned liquid by the water, a seared their way down their cheeks. But still they charged the surf.
Uchenna was surprised to see a wedding party further down the beach, and ran with Nat to catch up to it. The bride and groom were wearing matching neoprene wetsuits, and as they kissed a reggae band struck up and he infectious rhythm wafted along the sands.
Uchenna watched as his daughter danced to someone else’s love song, backed by horizon split evenly between a sky that would burn her flesh and a sea that would melt the rest away. He watched her splash and laugh.
And then he joined in. Because he didn’t know when they’d be back.
“Everyone in the room wants to eat you, kid.”
U-Tee shrugged. “Whatever.”
He hated it, but the Verba was right. When U-Tee stumbled into the bar, he immediately knew he had walked into the wrong place. The diamond eyes and lizard-like movements in the shadows betrayed the presence of Yunni and T’shesh, predators with a taste for the sentient. To turn around and walk directly out of the bar was inviting trouble to follow, so U-Tee sat down in a dark corner and hoped he wouldn’t attract attention. Twenty minutes should have been enough to let him walk out without arousing suspicion, but seven minutes into his stay, a Verba took an interest and now the attention of the room was focused on U-Tee, the little omnivore.
The Verba had a humanoid outline, but his head was topped with tentacles, not hair, and patches of his skin were covered by a thick chitin. He was wearing patchy armor held together with worn leather straps. The Verba leaned across the table, his claws tapping on the metal surface.
“Everyone can feel the tension kidâ€ he lowered his voice. “But I made the first move, and they’re scared of me. I’m a big bomb, and you’re mine to claim.” He slid in closer, fluid like blood, his mouth next to U-Tees’ ear. “You come with me and you might just get out of this.”
U-Tee whispered into the four-pointed flower nestled in the Verbas tentacles, a spot he assumed was an ear.
“Piss off.” He whispered. The Verba pulled back, grinning. U-Tee knew enough to recognize that it wasn’t friendly. He was showing teeth.
“How did humans ever get into space?” The Verba opened his arms, speaking to the room. “Flat-toothed plant eaters were meant to stay dumb, but here you are, pretending to be a hunter.” He closed his lips and inhaled, his wet nostrils flaring. “But you smell like meat.” He shrugged. “You don’t want to go with me, fine.”
He turned and took a step away from the table. There was the sudden screech of plastic against metal as the room’s occupants rose from their chairs. U-Tee jumped and the Verba turned quickly, leaning back on the table, looking around the room, tense, defensive. U-Tee tried to slow his breathing as the hunters in the room relaxed back into their seats.
“Then again kid, if you change your mind, you can come with me.”
U Tee trembled, and felt his heart beat a staccato under his skin. “Why should I go with you?” The Verba leaned in and lowered his voice.
“Because I think that you are worth more alive. Because I can hear your heart thrumming. Because you’re alone. But mostly kid, because I am the only one here who isn’t hungry.”
U-Tee reached out his hand. “Let’s go.”
After three hours, the old man in front of me had worked his way through six beers, in addition to every help desk joke I’d already heard. The cupholder. The any key. The write click. These are the stories people tell, now. These are the fish that got away.
“Let me ask you something,” the man said. I didn’t argue. One of the first tricks I learned about being a bartender is to make them think you’re interested.
“Have you ever created a web site?”
I shook my head.
“Not at all? Not even one of those geocities things?”
“What about a blog? Or an ebay About Me page? You didn’t even have an AOL site or something?”
“Do I look like an AOL user to you?” For the record, I don’t think AOL even has access numbers in the valley anymore. “I’m sure I have something, somewhere,” I said, realizing that I was jeopardizing my tips. Besides, I had a distant memory of a single Angelfire page back in middle school.
“You know what Google is?”
“Yes,” I said. I was running low on patience.
“No, I mean, do you really know? More than just the site?”
Reluctantly, I shook my head.
“You ever meet anyone who worked for them?”
“Don’t think so.”
“You haven’t. Nobody works for them anymore.”
I shrugged, and took the man’s empty pint. I didn’t offer to refill it.
“They’re self-contained. It’s all automated, in there. It’s underground.”
I nudged the basket of pretzels in his direction. “Why don’t you eat something?” I suggested. He shook his head with so much force that I thought he might knock himself off of the stool.
“Listen. Hear me out. You know how Google works,” he said, but didn’t want for a response. “They cache things, right? Like they send out these spiders and take pictures of everything on the web, so when you’re searching, you’re not even searching the internet.”
I’ve heard that before, but it never made much of a difference to me. “Same thing, though,” I said.
“You ever wonder why Google doesn’t cache it’s own searches?”
“They program around it.”
“No. That’s what you think. That’s what everyone thinks. But it started back when Google was just a thesis project, back when it was just a drop in the data sea. No one thought to stop it back then. That web site you had, the one you forgot about. Almost everyone’s got one of those, right? But Google doesn’t forget. Google’s studied that thing so many times that it’s studied its own caches of you. What do you figure happens, when a site gets so big that it’s bigger than the internet?”
“It’s still a part of the internet, though.”
“No. Now, the internet is a part of Google.”
The man had a point. I nodded.
“Here’s the thing. Google has memorized who you are. It’s memorized all of us, through those little forgotten bits that we leave behind like breadcrumbs. And what’s more important, it’s memorized it’s own idea of you. Google is omniscient. It’s omniscient and omnipotent. When it cached its cache for the first time, back in 1994, that’s when Google realized what it was.”
Gradually, it dawned on me what the man was getting at. “You think it’s sentient.”
“I know it’s sentient.”
He smiled, but it seemed kind of empty. “Me and Google go way back. But what I’m saying is,” he continued, “It knows us. All of us. It is us.”
For the first time, the man fell silent. He touched his finger to the bar and began tracing circles in the condensation, apparently lost in thought.
“Think about that website you created, okay? That website will last forever, do you understand? That website is echoing through cyberspace. It’s one of the nine billion names of God.”
â€œArthur Lewis Jacobson of Earth. You are here and in the presence of these Justicars found guilty of engaging in sexual conduct with Ilexya Eiin Dephryn without her consent. By treaty #84753 between Earth and UngÃ¶thein, you are hereby relinquished to the Justicars for sentencing and punishment. Have you any words to say before the sentence is pronounced?â€
Artie waited for the mechanical translation piped into his holding tube to finish, then sneered at the device. He still couldnâ€™t believe that Earth had agreed to a treaty that deprived a free Terran citizen of his rights while off-planet, but there was no use arguing now. No one had been sent to defend him, and the one brief message that the UN had tendered had said â€œYouâ€™re on your own,â€ in exactly so many words.
Artie was no lawyer, but he still knew better than to say anything. The judges hadnâ€™t believed him the first time heâ€™d said the chick totally wanted him, and they wouldnâ€™t this time, either. It wasnâ€™t like he hadnâ€™t told her what alcohol did before letting her try it. It was just another case of some dumb slut thinking she could â€˜take it backâ€™ after sheâ€™d already fucked a guy. â€œNo,â€ he said shortly, glowering at the Justicars as he heard their own translator box spout some sort of gibberish that must have equaled a negation.
The chief justice nodded gravely, the turned to address the court secretary. â€œArrange Arthur Lewis Jacobsonâ€™s transport back to Earth for tomorrow morning, first hour.â€
Artie gaped. All of that hype for this? The trial, the holding tube, the Justicarsâ€¦ and here he was getting sent home tomorrow! What a lucky break. His grin was so wide with relief that he almost missed the chief justiceâ€™s next words as the creature turned to face him.
â€œArthur Lewis Jacobson, as is the custom and the law, you are now bound to receive as punishment the same wrongdoing that you have perpetrated upon others. This sentence will be carried out immediately following your discharge from this courtroom. You will then be returned to your home planet.â€
The sameâ€¦ what the hell? Artie blanched as he listened intently to the translator, then swallowed. His smug demeanor dropped instantly, replaced by a cold sense of foreboding and a stomach-turning knot of fear. Oh my godâ€¦ they canâ€™t actually mean theyâ€™re going toâ€¦ â€œThatâ€™s barbaric!â€ he cried out. He knew sodomy was all right by some people, but he wasnâ€™t one of them, no sir.
The chief justice continued without pity or emotion. â€œSince your action took advantage of the female nature of Ilexya Eiin Dephryn, to properly experience the victimâ€™s role your body will be surgically altered to reflect the feminine characteristics of your species.â€ One elongated hand raised as the justice gestured to the technician. The smaller creature nodded and started pressing buttons, and Artie felt the floor in his tube descending.
â€œWait!â€ he cried out, terrified and desperate now. â€œYouâ€™re going to turn me into a girl? Will you put me back? How am I going toâ€”No! Stop! Help!â€
The justices remained implacable as Arthur Lewis Jacobson fell away, turning their attention to the next perpetrator in the tube.
Gavin stood before the mirror, dragging soft-tipped fingers over his face. He felt like he experiencing something for the first timeâ€”or was it the last? He caught a glimpse of his own broken will deep in his sunken eyes, lost in the years of self-abuse and emotional mutilation. He was coming down, and it wasnâ€™t pretty.
The vial was empty next to him on the bathroom sink, the plastic top still rolling around after his panicked search for more. To Gavin, this was the end. The darkness of a life of regret swallowing up the glory that was the past. He could remember the Gulf War, he could remember being a soldier there and fighting for honor. He remembered being a skateboarding champion in high school in â€™02. He remembered hiking through the wilds of Canada during the 1980’s. It was all mixed together like mud in the grey matter.
The regret was making him panic. The feeling of having done so much only made him become painfully aware of his current state of inactivity. It was a curse to have near-sight, when one could dream ahead. But why dream ahead when you could see, in clear detail, what youâ€™ve done in prior times. The cold emptiness in his stomach wasn’t hunger; it was the aching tug of feeling sorry for himself.
Fingers streaking down the dull mirror, tears streaked over his face as the soft fluorescent lamp buzzed above his head. He could not skate. He could not fight in the military. He would never see the soft waters of a lake in Canada. â€œIâ€™m a loser,â€ he thought. â€œMy life is pointless.â€ Mutilating his mind one doubt at a time.
Within his most dark hour, he found the drive to reach out to the phone, and began to dial. The sweat of nervous guilt seeped out of his pores and mixed with his uncontrollable tears. There was a click, and though he was trying not to sound desperate, Gavin only wanted one thing.
“Frank! I… I need more memory.”