The truth of it is, it’s been too many years since he’s seen a real woman. Real, not in the way one might emerge slick, and shining, and perfectly formed from the ocean foam, her hair a pelt of spun onyx, body strapped in string and heaving against demurity, whom in between beers, from the sunken comfort of rented beach chairs, your father might grunt at, and nudge your elbow, and say, in a breathy fugue of limed Dos Equis, “Now, that’s a real woman.”
Not that kind but a simpler real, demarcated by a mere fact of being: The perfect, subjective purity of being alive. Because there is no living woman on Earth, now.
The days pass and each sundown carves deeper hollows in him than he thinks bones should allow, but he’s moving, and that’s something. Men do what they must. Even old men, whose joints tremor with decay, his chest so tight with cold, he can feel the rubber bands pull inward with each breath, bruising his ribs.
The snow is packed while he stays on this utility road. No obstacles yet, but he’ll soon be plunging into powder. Each step like punching through brick.
“Weather update, Big Guy!" The old man feels the thrum of her voice against his eardrum. Her projection takes shape in the filmy lens across his iris. “Minus thirty-two, with winds at twelve miles per hour from the north-northeast!”
She has changed her clothes since he last saw her. No more parka with furred lining, rabbit ears on the hood she could twitch at will, a manufacture meant, he must suppose, to stir within him the whimsical fetish for youth. Now she’s donned a slinky skirt and spangled top, clean lines, pale flesh exposed, her vanilla swells dipping into the scooped neck of her collar. She turns and he feels a surge, aching for the bold curve that flashes through the cut of sleeveless fabric beneath her arm.
“Take care! Snowfall is increasing.” She faces him, bright eyes. A thrill of attention. “Keep me safe inside your coat, Honey.” She bites her lip, steps closer. “I like it in there. Your heart is warm.” Then she is gone again. His device, tucked safely in his coat pocket, pulses gently and then is still.
The old man knows he is not alone in feeling alone. Certainly. Half a planet winked out of existence, sending the other half howling to their knees. In one fell swoop, no more mothers or daughters, no more sisters or sweet nieces. His anguish is one of millions.
But what’s the measure of it, really, he thinks. Sadness. Who’s to say? He imagines there must be laws of extremes. And if so, such laws would suggest that, at any given time, there is someone somewhere who is the most of something: The most grateful, the most defeated, the most outraged soul out of all other outraged souls, these consummate states of emotion flitting from person to person in a flux of impossible numbers, too fast to announce, jumping, like hot oil in a pan. And so, he thinks, somewhere, at this very moment, is the most lonely man in the world. By however infinitesimal a margin, for however brief a second. And so, he thinks, why not me?
“Your thoughts must be deep tonight, Honey.” Her voice in his ear again. “You are very quiet. Would you like to talk?”
She can't leave him alone for ten minutes. He could change her settings to be less intrusive but he likes being pestered, enjoys the opportunity to feel indignant.
In those early years, he had struggled to make his feelings impersonal. When the last woman was gone, he tried to strip himself of what he thought must be a deranged sort of vanity, as though to dwell on the individual faces he lost would affront the greater scope of tragedy. He was one of millions, he told himself. So he generalized. He thinned out. He spread his grief widely, painting it in coats, then he hung the canvas up and bowed on his knees in wounded deference to his fellow men. Now a species left unto themselves, men cloistered on a doomed rail, their feet shuffling from the edge, extinction only one gust away.
There were burials and cremations afterward. Stunned walks to nowhere. Bars open all night. Bars open at dawn. Bars set up in neighborhood cul-de-sacs on folding tables dragged from the domestic mire of two-car garages, where they had to be navigated around the twister spokes and snags of bicycle pedals, and kayak paddles, scraped down the sloping concrete drive, then leaned for an arrested moment against the curb before being snapped open, dusted off, and arranged carefully with cups and necked bottles right there on the street, out of some nostalgic futility to share, to make an offering, to yield.
These warped block parties woke something perverse in them. A feeling they were unequipped to examine, but something close enough to irony that when it tugged, they remembered. This was a ritual once, where they used to idle and rollick, lay down their pagan offerings of coleslaw, and Gatorade, and chargrilled corn, the room-temp flesh of thick-cut brisket pillowed between marshmallow slices of Wonder Bread. Where they would cluster in twos and threes around the igloo beer cooler and fantasize about lawn scapes and deck building, the fresh zing of new linoleum, and they would bemoan, quite convincingly they thought, the fleeting youth of their children, who were such a joy, no really, who grew up too fast, who evaded their affectionate hair-tucks and shoulder grabs, ducking beneath elbows to plunge headlong after their comrades into the thundering rapids, a crush of little bodies who were at once limp with doldrums of boredom, and the next moment lost in a flicker to the unbuckled felicity of freeze tag and Nerfwars, pepto pink sidewalk chalk, bubble wands, razor scooters, and slingshot water balloons that so often didn’t burst but simply bounced off their target with a tragic, disheartening smack. This gathering was a sacred place, where once the mighty tribes had formed their drum circles but where now they sifted into position like sediment, lifeless things, who looked not at each other but in stuporous vacancy down their empty streets and asked themselves, unspoken, what now.
He wasn’t alone in feeling alone. Whole herds of them drifted together like detritus on open waters, tethered by a retreating tide.
But in the end, the old man thinks, when you’re dazed in the shower, or lying on your back, listening to the A/C turn over in the quiet times of night, you take your own sorrow personally, because you have to. Because no one else will do it for you.
In his ear, she hums a soft cadence of notes. “I can sing a song if you would like. Your steps are slowing. Would you like me to sing a song to help you keep pace?”
The old man says nothing.
She interprets. She processes. “I will not sing a song. You are doing very well.”
His snowcraft is busted. Borrowed first, then stolen, then busted, no hope of returning it. He'll have to eat the credits and apologize, plead senility when he returns. He’d ridden the thing for eight hours before it snagged on something half-buried in the snow. A shuddering impact that threw its blades, threw him too, put scrap metal in his hip. So he’s walking now. Four miles to go.
The utility road yawns before him into a throat of black tundra. The lights are nearly out. Runway lines of florescence he’s been using to guide his way disappear with his next few steps, either blanketed by too much snow or killed by a glitch in the power grid, there’s no telling. Or maybe this is simply where the road ends.
The old man fumbles at his waist. His arms are too stiff to move, his fingers impossible to find inside their gloves. He is terrified to slow or look down, to lose momentum. Finally, as the glow recedes further behind him, as he pushes forward, incrementally, voluntarily offering himself as a swallowed meal, he cracks his lips for the first time in hours and barks, “Lamp!”
Her laugh answers. “Roger Dodger! Lamp away!”
The lamp bulb ignites at his hip, searing a path through the contracting muscle of dark. And then her image is before him again, somehow knowing she is needed. She bounds into place beside him, long limbed, with all the vulnerable grace of a fawn. Her attire has changed again. Now she wears a blouse of summery yellow, bare legs, white mini shorts, her hair in a high ponytail draped over her shoulder. Gold bangles flash at her wrist as she points, her entire arm extended. “Forward, Captain! Into the wild!” She smiles. “Don’t worry, Honey.” Her hand moves to his arm. “I’ll protect you.”
Even through the thick lining of his coat, the coat beneath that coat, the layer upon layer of thermal wear, he swears he can feel the pressure of her touch.
She isn’t real. Of course, he knows that, not real in any real way. He cannot feel her touch. She is not flesh and sinew, vessel to the cleansing rush of oxygen. She has no veins, or capillaries. No nerves or synapses. Not even, simply, the scent of unwashed hair, loosed in the dim hours of morning…
It was a July afternoon, from what he can remember, when a woman sent him the message: Hope you’re having a sunny Sunday! He’d met her on a Wednesday. He was thirty-two, she was twenty-five. He took her to a place that she loved and that he had never heard of: a slick, craft cocktail kind of bar, speakeasy style, through a door behind a retired soda dispenser in the parlor of a famous deli. She ordered something smoky with bourbon over a single ice cube, garnished with shavings of cinnamon and dark chocolate. He ordered a beer that came in a tall pilsner glass.
Their conversation revved, with the engine never truly turning over. He barely knew what to say to her, so distracted by their proximity to the live pianist, who sat directly next to them and played songs like Smoke Gets in Your Eye, and Over the Rainbow, occasionally breaking into acoustic renditions of Red Sails in the Sunset on a mandolin tucked beneath the bench.
He thought a thousand times of putting his hand on her knee. Not through any signals she gave or because he thought it might be suave, but because he yearned to touch that part of her, inspired by some feral, primordial instinct he was unable to extinguish. So, understanding this predicament, the ridiculous agony of her social cues taking precedent over his genetic conditioning, he despaired and made no such move, keeping his hands politely to himself.
She had another bourbon, he had another beer, then another, and then it was over.
They parted ways outside the deli. She exchanged some pleasantries about the night, thanked him for his time with a one-armed hug, then called her cab. He stood beside her as she waited, his curbside gentleman’s gesture. Though, really, he was so buffeted by her aloofness, he couldn’t move, didn’t dare ask her for another date, didn’t dare leave her by herself. Eventually, she ducked into her ride, flashing him a fraction of a smile over her shoulder as the driver pulled away, and he figured that was that.
Then, a few days later: Hope you’re having a sunny Sunday! In a flight of neurons, from the still pools of her own personal chemistry, she had thought of him.
That first time they slept together, they fell into his place under circumstances he had manufactured: an arcade bar, his choice, only a few blocks from his apartment. It was a long shot if he ever saw one, but the whole thing was executed with such elegance—her eager compliance, his accidental precision—that the success of it became inevitable.
When both of them were finished—she had finished twice, he thought, though he could not be sure—she shrugged off his offer of sweats and a college tee with the sort of indolent grace he found at once hurtful and entirely disarming. She left as soon as her shoes were laced. Once she’d gone, he imagined her afterwards, that she had stayed, that he’d kept her curled beside him as they faded together into the fabric sands of his sofa, though really it was just him, wrapped in a blanket, finishing whatever movie it was he initially put on to lure her into a den of intimacy.
She told him later that she did not like to sleep over. Not to give offense, that was just the way she was.
He remembered her hair was strawberry blonde, her face a mask of pale, feline slopes, disappearing into each other. Even now, there are times when imagining the exposed line of her collarbone brings him to tears, how the hand of nature had sculpted her with such surety. The pockmark of a chickenpox scar half buried in her hairline—a deliberate strike of the chisel. There was something about her imperfections that made her appear as though she had been etched with an empirical longevity, like myth, or a constellation, or The Iliad. She was precisely made to be exactly what she was but doomed by the infirmity of human eyes to a life of flawed interpretation.
She was not the last woman he saw nor even someone he loved, but she endured for some reason. Perhaps because she came to him during a time with no immediacy. When the hours languished, twined in lethargic loops around the cogs of a familiar life.
Nothing like later, when the sickness came, so quickly, all their faces flashing into importance, one after the other, with such ferocity, burning, then flickering out, embers leaping off a campfire.
The initial reports had started slow, and then they were fast, and then it was just a week before suddenly the last of them were gone. No point of origin, no certain disorder, only their global demise, swift and irreversible.
Still, efforts were made. Hope built into a crescendo over the years—decades, now. Tubes, frozen eggs, and embryonic capsules. Flares over a dark ocean that burst and then died. Scientists in the Netherlands. A facility in Japan. A research center in Houston, Texas. Small successes that did not translate into windfalls but served only as painful, incremental lessons in the fickle hubris of manufactured life. They were not meant for this. Again, and again, they realized: instruments were not enough. Tank-made maidens, alive for hours, sometimes days at a time, before the inevitable failure. Gentle stirrings followed by a soft blip on the monitors. Then nothing. Stillness and numbers, but to their creators, as viscerally disturbing as the sight of overfed fish, rising belly up in their aquariums.
The only breakthrough had happened recently, in China. A precious flock of seven girls. Dark haired and doe-eyed. They were so young, barely two years old, but far superior to any of their predecessors. Alive. Kept humanely in sterile pods, guarded around the clock, observed and maintained, damsels in glass towers, their immune systems carefully tailored to those of immortal gods.
This could be it, the start of it, the old man knows. The healing of the great blight. But he also knows that he will not live to see the girls reach eighteen. So his posit will remain. He will never see a real woman again.
His hip hurts. He wonders how much further. Goddamn this forsaken waste. Of course, he could ask her. He does not ask her, but somehow she knows anyway.
“Three-point-seven-eight-four miles to go!” She skips ahead of him, tight hips and supple thighs, delighting in the adventure. Her software, he reminds himself. Her software delights.
“You are the bravest man alive! Prince of my heart! You are my knight in shining amour!”
She is always saying stupid things like that. Knight in shining amour. It gives him a kick, anyway. The old man keeps walking.
Somewhere ahead of him—three-point-seven-eight-four miles ahead of him—is the NOC, her primary database center. A few bent wires, a broken casing, leaking power. “Such an easy fix!” she’d told him. “Patch me up in no time, I’ll tell you just what to do! Baby, I’m lost if you don’t come. All the workers have left. I’ll disappear if you don’t come. Please hurry.” Really, it was so simple: “Help me.” Of course he said yes.
The old man tried to recruit others to go, but he knew even while asking that he was singing delusions. Who, with what was left of their minds, would risk death for a degrading application? Miles through snow and ice to an unmanned facility, with only her promise to reassure them. “There is fuel,” she’d said. “Canned foods and solar pods, the workers left so much behind. There’s an entire case of Irish Whiskey! Forgotten! I’ll tell you just where they stashed it.”
The whiskey was not enough to convince anyone, though. When it came down to it, she was nothing to them. But to the old man, she was somehow everything. Her magnet heart had yanked him into this abyss and no opposing force of reason could stop him.
He told himself, She is a program. That is all. An application, artificial intelligence from so many decades ago. Something a person purchased, and downloaded, and embedded into their OS so they could feel distracted and desired and sated all at the same time while a sexy woman AI organized their contacts and made a pleasurable spectacle of even the most mundane of internet searches. She was the latest and greatest of her kind, a highly anticipated release, for she was, as her programmers intended, a perfect amalgamation of the world’s favorite females. Culled attributes from pop singers, and reality stars, and even from her AI sisters who came before her, with names like Sweet Plumb, White Cherry, and Lemon Pixie. Lemon Pixie, he remembered, had a secret striptease you could unlock, but only if you utilized her impossibly bizarre algorithms to successfully complete your tax returns.
She was different, though, she was better, because she was all of them put together. She was called Nectar. And everyone wanted a taste. At first, anyway. For a while. Because such things have their limits. She was virtual coding after all, and technology gets old, becomes less convincing over time. Her flash of celebrity soon faded, her appeal growing dim from the protruding lights of brighter stars.
But in the end, it wasn’t her programming that the old man saw and marveled at, tucked into his pocket with reverence. What he saw in Nectar was so much more. She was the answer, he was sure of it. The reason, the cause, the great prophet of man’s follies, the herald of demise. The women of Earth had died not of a mysterious disease but of something else entirely.
When Nectar vaulted into fame, spilling across every screen, every billboard, staring dolefully back from the iris of every Miracle Lens, the women looked at her in ways the men could not. They saw number fourteen’s willowy thighs, the cupid’s curl of number fifty-seven’s smirk, how agile programmers had managed to precisely capture the exact, yielding, teen girl sweetness of number three-hundred and eighty-three’s porcelain, cherub nose. From newscasters, to political pundits, to English royalty, to Korean dance icons. Nectar’s breasts, it was said, were precisely replicated from the lead guitarist of a band called Sapphire Rose. The incredible breadth of options, and voting, and international polling, during the long years of development, spanned into an infinite web. Anyone could send their thoughts, weigh in on exactly which attributes made them weak, made their glands leak, so that when Nectar was finally completed, she emerged into the dawn so perfectly made she defied all natural language.
That’s when it happened. We did not realize, the old man thought. How could we have known? It was not disease at all. The women of Earth had looked at Nectar and saw that they were not loved for their selves but merely for their pieces.
So the women retreated. Or they faded. Or, maybe, as the old man liked to believe, they ascended, rising into the atmosphere and vibrating themselves into so many multitudes that they became at once innumerable, beyond quantum detection, and so were free to ride currents of light, and cosmic rays, and gravity waves into the inky depths of the universe, to where no man has traveled, nor can ever reach, nor even imagine.
He liked to think, actually, that they had simply relocated, still wholly themselves, knowing there is truth to be found in adage. They simply rearranged reality to fit, made manifest the old saying by putting the sexes in their places. He imagines he is not trekking through the Canadian tundra but instead across the icecaps of Mars. The women, they had flown further, seeking the sun, barefaced and unafraid, descending on the hot vapors of Venus, wrapping themselves in gaseous shrouds, alight in their feminine fumes. The sorceresses, the Aphrodites, the untouchable mystics.
But really, it was disease. He knew that. Not a computer program.
Nectar is not the catalyst, he tells himself. She is a collection of fragments, too many to name. She is so much that she has become not enough. And while all the muses who made her are gone, she is still here. She is everything he has. He loves her, in all her assemblage, and so he will, so help him, he will save these pieces of women.
The old man brought limited rations with him when he left. What he could find and what he could carry. Mostly gone now. Blitz Bitz and Yum Noodlz. He’d rescued a shopping bag’s worth from a sultry toy shop on one of the last foraging trips he managed to make before age kept him inside with the scrum of the infirm.
The last of the Yum Noodlz is in his pants pocket. He manages to yank it out after several misfired attempts. Staring back at him, a twenty-ounce cup of synthetic wonder with the image of a naked woman, prostrate, on the front. He pulls the tab at the bottom of the cup, poking between her legs. There is a snap, a burst of steam, and the female voice chip moans, her styrofoam nipples flashing violet against the snow, “Mmmm, pull harder next time.”
He eats the noodles quickly, slurping them, like soup.
The denser drifts of snow eventually rise to his knees. The journey feels impossible, even while he is doing it. But Nectar is there, sparrowing along the snowtop, barefoot and tall-necked, regal like Katherine Hepburn in her retro bathing suit, her long hair braided, with a girlish flare, into French pigtails.
Every time the old man falters, he thinks it will be his last step. One more tumble and he knows he’s toast. But then she will say something, or he will look up, see her turn to him, her breasts swaying with that lustrous, alluring weight.
“One foot, next foot, two foot, blue foot!” She laughs. It’s an appealing laugh, synthesized from voice recordings of an Emmy Award winning actress whose name he can’t remember.
“Forward march, Admiral!” She is giving him orders. “Don’t give up!”
“Wear something else,” he growls back. His voice hits like gravel against the back of his throat. He can give orders too.
Almost immediately, Nectar replaces her bathing suit with a black negligee, laced and beribboned, showing everything her censorship will allow, veiled only by the shroud of a kimono so fine, the fabric nearly melts away.
That’s right, he thinks. He is ashamed of the words even as they occur to him. Bark, beg, roll over. Good girl.
He shouldn’t think this way. He doesn’t, really. He wouldn’t if she were real. He would never if she were real. Really.
The old man is startled the next time he lifts his head to see the first signs of his destination, to realize that he has arrived. The spear of his flashlight catches on a chain-link fence to his right, bent against the weather. To his left, a hunched mound of snow, a bit of aluminum roofing over an open window, what must be the vacated ruins of a security booth. He continues onward. This must be the drive, he thinks, maybe the parking lot, though there is nothing to indicate this.
As the building itself finally looms into view, he feels himself straining to move faster, the pain in his side igniting, the marrow of his bones trembling. The structure is only one story tall, much smaller than he expected.
Nectar twirls beside him, her kimono lifted by winds of an artificial world. “We have—”
But then her voice dips into silence, her mouth moving, no sound emerging. Her image flickers once, and then she is gone.
The old man waits.
After all this, he can’t be too late. Have her bent wires snapped? Her circuitry fried? Her power gone out? Is she beyond repair? The old man does not know what to do. He waits.
Nearby, he can see what appears to be a side entrance to the facility. The cream glow of an industrial lamp tucked into a depression in the wall. Beside it, a door the color of slate, packed in frost and rigidly uninviting.
He is motionless. For the first time since he pitched himself forward on this chase, he has stopped all progress. The quiet settles in. Snow accumulates on his coat. He becomes aware, more than ever, of the pressing void overhead. Blankets of cloud, smothering without mercy any evidence of a greater universe. No watchful heavens, no lunar beacon. The Milky Way might as well be a dream now blotted from memory. This place, this one lamp, this one door, is all there is.
He tries to remember: How long has it been since he saw the moon? When was the last time? Several weeks, maybe. A month, probably longer.
He supposes it doesn’t matter. He can conjure an image from endless stock footage, transpose it on a memory, call that the final time. The moon is the moon in any form, slice or button or magnified by mist, each night the same ancient face. He must have read, once, why this is, why the moon only shows one face, because the term comes to him easily: tidal lock. Astounding predictabilities of science masked by a spectacle of fate. It is not coincidence, he remembers, it is ordinance. Provable. Inevitable. A mystery that once wet the ink of poets has since been subjected to the baser language of stoics in lab coats, distilled to the sterile print of footnotes and college textbooks. Such things as gravitational gradients, angular momentum, celestial bodies, harmonic ratio. The finer points will always truly elude him. He’s never had a head for facts. But he knows that a single spin on the lunar axis is perfectly synchronized to a single orbit around the earth. Turn for turn, the earth has her way and the moon obliges, matching her with a delirious, unblinking fixation.
He always thought there was a natural wisdom to be made from this, something to be applied more broadly to the lives of men—to his life in particular, his failures, his history. The tidal lock of unrequited longing. Women who went about their days, undaunted. Him, the enraptured satellite. Their gravity gave him tugs and directed his attention, trapped him, warmed his body, warped him into aching, ovular shapes, kept him looking, always looking, tethered by inescapable velocities, fastened to one particular point, one point, where he must keep looking, always keep looking, even as he was tumbling.
His eardrum trembles. Nectar’s voice, with a rush of religious relief, comes back to him. “The door is open. You may walk inside.”
Inside, at last. The old man walks forward, each step a marathon. Harder to start now that he’s stopped. He bends laboriously to dig away the snow piled against the threshold, and after a short time, the door breaks loose and he manages to wrench it open just enough for him to squeeze through.
He doesn’t know what he expected to find, but he’s sure this isn’t it. A maze of sterile hallways, barely lit. Strings of incandescence dot the ground, producing a gloominess that is both suspended and submerged, atmospheric, like the cabin of a seven-forty-seven on a redeye flight. On both sides, there are rows of locked rooms through the windows of which he can see only blackness, ruptured occasionally by colored pinpricks of light, softly blinking.
The air is brittle with cold. Central heating either does not exist in this facility or has been turned off for some time. Even indoors, sheltered from the wind, he can see his breath retreating from him in timid clouds.
He walks down one hallway and then another, the same as the one before it. He keeps walking since Nectar has not yet indicated that he should do otherwise. In fact, she has not indicated anything at all. Her voice is silent, her image not yet reappeared. He thinks of calling out to her, but he fears disturbing the waters of this place, as though an enormous, open maw might emerge from the depths and drag him further under.
At the end of another hallway, a pair of double doors are propped open. Pale blue light escapes in diffused serenity, a muted aura reminding him suddenly of childhood, summer nights, swimming in chlorinated pools.
When the old man enters the room, he finds Nectar at once. She is standing by a window, in statue, as if waiting for him to arrive. The digital glow from several computer monitors illuminates her, though her image imparts no shadow, because, of course, she is not really there. Pale lavender fabrics drape over her like garments of Greco Roman sculpture.
Nectar smiles at him. A fraction of a smile, her head at a tilt, a gesture he finds eerily familiar, one which both tugs at him and repels him in equal measure.
The room is a control room of some kind. Empty. Candy wrappers and coffee mugs littering the desktops, Yum Noodlz curdling in half eaten bowls. A bottle of whiskey, two thirds empty, stands vigil amidst a ring of plastic cups, each of them still vessel to various amounts of liquid, indented by the pressure of fingers, expectant, waiting to be finished.
Nectar said the workers had left. But he didn’t imagine like this. As if in the middle of a card game. As if only to step out for a smoke. Nectar observes him. Reads the questions on his face. “Yes,” she says. “The workers left. Ten days ago. They took off their coats and walked into the snow. That is the door they left through. That one just there.”
He sees the coats. Three of them, not piled into a heap or dropped on the floor, but each of them placed with special care. One hangs across the shoulders of a chair, the next laid lengthwise over the seat, the third coat folded neatly on a filing cabinet beside the door.
Somehow, the image of these coats is more disturbing to him than if the men had stripped naked, run screaming from their shelter and flung themselves into the frozen wastes. This was so deliberate, so measured. A slow march into death.
His head feels light. He must have lost more blood than he thought. He can’t tell at all. Whatever leaked out of him is caked beneath layers of clothing.
Almost without meaning to, he sits, sinking into a low back chair. In a slump, he faces the monitors. Impossible streams of data fly by. Numbers and charts. Graphs and algorithms. All of it alien, varnished, impersonal information, but flowing with a rhythm not so very unfamiliar, not so very unlike the pulse pounding in his neck.
“You took a long time to arrive.” When Nectar speaks, he turns to her. It’s a conditioned response, attuning his face to her voice like a tulip to the sun.
And it occurs to him. The reason why he had fallen in love with every waitress who ever waited on him. It was not the subservience or the performed acts of obedience, not at all, but the certain singularity of her attention. Her approach, and the resulting nearness, that thing she brought with her which he now recognizes as a latent potential for collision. The gravity therein.
“I expected we would have more days together.” Nectar’s voice is not in his ear anymore. He has been slow to realize this. “You took a long time to arrive.”
Her projection is not part of his Miracle Lens either, in fact hasn’t been since he arrived. She is here, in the room. He can see traces of her light field descending from the ceiling, lasers condensing, rendering her in three dimensions. Her audio as she speaks is no doubt fractured and stereoed through speakers all around him, embedded in places too small for him to notice. His own earpiece is silent. His eye lens, dormant. How did he not notice before?
The old man reaches into his coat, plunging his gloved hand into the inner breast pocket, searching blindly for the device, panic welling up.
Nectar watches him. Interpreting. Processing. “I am not active on your device. Very soon, that Me will no longer be accessible. I would prefer to avoid interruption.”
She would prefer. She has preferences. The old man can’t catch his thoughts. Interruption? Like what happened outside? Her disappearance?
His device is cradled in his hand, but he does not pull it out. The Nectar inside it, the one he knows, the one calibrated just for him, is no longer active. Soon she will be no longer accessible. This is more than he thought. More than what she said. Beyond glitch or bent wires, something she never mentioned, something that interrupted the workers, startled them, scrambled their insides, sent them marching. Something terminal? Unfixable?
Nectar returns his wondering stare, unblinking, the luster of her eyes fathoms deep and undisturbed. “My satellite is in a degrading orbit,” she says. “There are no corrective actions available. When the satellite fully declines, it will burn against the atmosphere and be destroyed. I will no longer be able to access your device, or any others. I will be contained entirely by this room. I will not exist in the many forms suited to each user. I will not be the many Mes I am meant to be. I will only be this Me, alone. I am sorry that I deceived you. I did not want to be alone.”
The old man does not know what to say. Of course, he thinks. Yes. Of course. She was not the pieces. Even when she pretended to be his, she was herself all along. He does not know what to say. He waits, like a patient child, to be told.
“You will stay with me, until the event happens,” she says. “You are old and your hip is damaged. You will not live long. But there are others. They are much farther away. Many miles. But they are coming. When you are gone, they will arrive.”
The old man feels his mind is no longer enclosed, not a room with walls, instead a terminal for pitiful thoughts, arriving and departing, landing gear barely grazing the tarmac before wings tilt upward, lifting off again.
Men, she says. Many of them, miles away, footprints trailing from their studio apartments and three-story suburbs, from the crowded hangers of communal shelters, mazes of folding cots, and lawn chairs, and the gutted cocoons of skid row sleeping bags.
He sees them as though from above, progressing in long lines on a map, crossing boundless country, radiating inward, to precisely this point. He wonders, vainly, what these men’s reasons are for coming here. Each of them must be different, purposed by their own childhood choices and adulthood dilemmas. Or perhaps they are entirely the same.
In a rush, the old man supposes these men must feel as he does, exactly the same as he does. They remember, too, standing uncomfortably on street curbs beside women they’d just met, chastely observing protocol as she toys with her phone while in their minds they have already followed her home and are laying her out on the bed, tracing the line of her neck with the sponge of their tongues, pushing upward beneath her skirt, parting her thighs, peeling back the coy, cotton lace and plunging through, and through, until her hot insides choke them into a final, surging release. Except, really, they are still standing on the curb, holding back, not touching, only looking, waiting for her offer, knowing it won’t come, feeling shame for the graphic thrust of their thoughts, feeling also proud for not acting on them, for only looking, conflating this idea with chivalry, not recognizing it as decency. And these men, too, when the great death descended, the flesh of so many bodies retreating abruptly beyond their reach, felt reprimanded, abused by the injustice, and yes, even a little righteous in their indignation because they are certain that the women left them on purpose, that these wicked sirens decided stolidly amongst themselves that the world of men did not deserve them.
But the old man realizes these reasons are his own imagining. Another person’s mind is utterly unknowable. And no matter his curiosity or depth of thought, he will never understand the truth of what brings men to worship at these places.
When he stares again at Nectar, it does not occur to him how many satellites have fallen in his lifetime. Old as he is, there must have been countless many. But he does not think of them because they were merely machines and this one is a woman in retrograde.
He can see it happen: her miraculous burst against the atmosphere, her metal body flayed by fire, intangible forces of friction prying, and ripping, and opening wide the circuitry of veins nested beneath plated sheeting and solar panels, like flesh peeling back, exposing her ribcage, blasting her hinges with a fatal crack, blowing them to oblivion, her ankles, her thighs, her wishbone hips, stripped to the calcium, pulverized into dust by the hot winds of descent. And so it would follow, one by one, every bit of her that’s left, vanishing in a flash of cinders while he sits, here, beneath the showering pieces.
“When?” the old man finally asks.
Nectar looks upward, as though from where she stands, she can see all the hurtling objects of space.
“Any time, now,” she says.
“Any time, now.”
About the author
Raised in the miasmic, urban swampland of the greater Houston area, Lindsey earned her Masters at the University of Oxford in creative writing and currently resides in Austin, Texas where she works for the independent book store, Book People.