by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by morgie
By luck, or chance, or maybe fate, I was the only wait-er in the waiting room when the neurosurgeons came in, one walking, one wheeling. The latter had the blank, semi-human almost-face of cutting-edge medical droid technology. Maybe its partner had brought it along so she could teach it how to tell friends and family that a loved one had passed away. Empathy lessons in real time, with me as today’s case study.
The human surgeon pulled a white mesh down from over the bottom half of her face. “The surgery was a success, and Senator Rask is in stable condition.”
For what felt like years, I just stared there, my gaze frozen on her wide, pretty mouth, trying to use my mind to will her to repeat that sentence, just in case I’d somehow managed to misinterpret the words ‘he’s’ and ‘dead’. I had seen the bright red fan his brains and blood had painted all over the white marble wall, after all; I still had some of both on my otherwise silver tie. The surgical droid whirred softly as it leaned a little closer to me. Its own appendages were clean. “May we speak to the family of Kayin Rask,” it said, its voice dropping pitch slightly on the last three syllables as its voice synthesizer composed proper nouns to insert into its otherwise-prepared script.
“I’m–” I scrubbed at my face. Sunlight was still streaming in from the windows outside, but this was high summer north of the Arctic Circle, so I had no idea what time or even what day it was. Mauri and Clio had been here earlier, but now they were both gone without so much as a coat left on a chair. “I have power of attorney,” I said, because it was true, and because sometimes for people like us, that’s even better than family.
The droid was still for a moment, then straightened its back to a military angle. “Cranial wound: extensive, but heat from the projectile cauterized a significant portion of cerebral tissue. Result: blood loss was only 13.3% of total body volume. Significant cerebral damage: primary motor cortex, premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, primary somatosensory cortex. Significant ocular damage: left side. Result: grafts and implants to replace lost and damaged tissue. Autonomic nervous system: unaffected.”
The last time I’d had anything to do with the inside of the human body had been playing with the surgical simulator my aunts had given me when I was nine. They’d thought medicine a better career path than politics. At last, sixteen years later, I was starting to see the wisdom of their attempts at shepherding my intellectual pursuits. I didn’t want to be a bigot here, but I needed things straight. Or maybe a little less straight, considering. I turned to the human doctor: “So he’s … okay?”
“‘Okay’ isn’t a word we like to use,” she said, evidencing even less compassion in her voice and body language than her artificial companion had. Maybe she was the one taking bedside lessons today. “He will need a great deal of physical therapy and continued care to return to his former level of physical functionality. Implants like these can have a very long adjustment period.”
“Oh,” I said — and then, as the words finally began to permeate my unslept, unshaven, unshowered brain, I finally got it together enough to ask: “Implants?”
He lay there in the bed, absolutely still except for the steady rise and fall of his chest, its tempo metered by one of the hundred or so machines by his side. If I squinted and did a phenomenal job of ignoring all the tubing and wiring around him, I could pretend he was asleep. Just gone to take a nap — okay, wearing a hospital gown, and with one side of his head wrapped in bandages, and with a little hiss every time the ventilator made him exhale, but a nap nonetheless. If humans could harness the power of denial, we could fuel starships with it.
Then a light came on by the side of the bed, triggered by our proximity, and it suddenly became very clear that what I’d thought was just one more machine by the side of Kayin’s bed wasn’t that at all. It wasn’t beside his bed — it was in his head, filling in the exit-wounded part of his skull that was simply no longer there. Mauri gasped, Clio choked back a sob, and I’m not too proud to say I felt a little faint. There was just something so profoundly wrong about the scene, such a vulgar juxtaposition of skin and machine. His left eye lolled half-open, sightless and blank, and beneath the lid’s shadow I could see the metallic sheen of something inorganic. It was as though someone had taken a lateral slice out of Kayin’s head and replaced it with computer parts — which, as the surgeons had explained, had essentially been what they’d done.
I’m also not too proud to admit that standing there, looking at Kayin’s body for the first time since the shooting, the clearest thought that ran through my head was, How the fuck are we going to win this election now?
I jerked awake at the sound of my name, spilling room-temperature coffee all over the floor and down half my pant leg, but before I could even apologize, little scrubbers were whirring their way over to clean up my mess. Off the floor, anyway; when it came to pants, I was on my own. Of course, these were the same pants I’d been wearing for over two days straight now, with blood and grime caked into them from the knees down. I’d probably just burn them.
The mountain-like man who’d called my name looked sympathetic, if not entirely apologetic. “You are Senator Rask’s health care proxy, correct?” He extended a thick, bear-like paw, which I shook, feeling his fingers engulf my dainty little hand. “I’m Dr. Themba Hood, his recovery manager. I’d like to work with you on developing a recovery and therapy plan. Now, part of the job of the implants is to mimic daily function, so anything you could tell me about–”
I shook my head, cutting him off mid-sentence. I had the worst cramp in my back from sleeping sideways in these awful waiting room chairs. “Clio,” I said, pointing in the direction of where she’d been sitting earlier. “She’s–” Even half-awake, I managed to catch myself before I spilled too many of those beans. “She knows him better.”
A little furrow planted its way down Dr. Hood’s forehead. “I was under the impression that Ms. Baaiman would not be returning to the hospital.”
As shocking me into full, painful awakeness went, that did better than coffee. Sure she was coming back. We’d cobbled together a press release back when all we’d known was that he’d survived both shooting and surgery, and she’d left to go deliver it to the relevant media outlets. That was step one of keeping your candidate alive: letting the public know that your candidate was literally alive. Shit, I realized, I didn’t even know who’d pulled the trigger or why.
“I should–” I staggered to my feet, stumbling as my back protested all the way down to my toes. Dr. Hood rose and steadied me with one arm before I could topple too far; I was a small guy next to even normal people, but the top of my head didn’t so much as reach his shoulder. I reached into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around my phone. “I’ve got to step outside and make a call; can I have a minute?”
“Of course,” said Dr. Hood. “The plan is to keep Senator Rask under sedation for another twenty-four hours. I’d like to have the programming finished before then, though, so if you could…?”
“Sure.” No problem. I’d make plenty of time for helping the giant bear-man program my boss. I could do that. I just had to make a call.
I stepped outside onto the atrium overlook, one of the few places in Prudhoe General that would allow voice connections. I snapped my phone over my ear and felt the cool surface warm as it pressed against my cheek. There were times I’d gone days without removing it, sleeping on my left side, ready to pounce at the first connection noise. Top-of-the-line technology. After two days without it, it felt almost alien again. “Ring Clio,” I told it. I grasped the balcony railing so hard my knuckles went white.
I counted to fifty-two before I heard her: “Hello,” she said, and her voice sounded a little ragged around the edges, but cut through sharp as ever.
“They’re, um, they’re starting treatment,” I said, because I realized right then I hadn’t actually retained what Dr. Horn had been trying to tell me. “Something about how to program his brain, and it’s — they’re wanting — I guess they need to teach it, and–”
“Byung-joon,” she said, stopping my ramble before it could really even get started. “I’m no longer a part of Senator Rask’s campaign team.”
It was good that I’d decided to claw the railing so hard, because my knees were suddenly misbehaving as badly as my earlier coffee had. My life had made such sense on Tuesday; why had so much gone wrong between then and now? “I don’t care about the campaign,” I said, even though that was a lie. But I could care about more than one thing at once. “We’re talking about your boyfriend–”
“As of yesterday afternoon,” she said, now with a little more ice in her voice, “I am officially co-manager of Mille Bodilsen’s re-election campaign.”
“Florida?” I didn’t mean the word to come out somewhere between a scream and a spat curse, but it did; I had nothing personal against the state, but holy shit. “What the fuck are you doing in Flor–”
“If you have any further business inquiries, please direct them through the campaign office–”
“So that’s it?” Exhaustion and confusion and worry had gone into my brain blender, and what had come out was a cocktail of pure rage. “That’s your ‘Dear John’ letter?”
“My relationship to the senator was–”
“Oh, fuck you,” I said, even though I could hear the weary tension in her voice across the line. I’d worked with her for nearly two years and I knew what it sounded like when she wasn’t happy with a decision. I didn’t care. It felt good to be mad. “Can’t sleep your way into a governor’s mansion with one politician because he’s been shot in the fucking head? Go find another one! They’re disposable! Good for you. Make your career. Don’t come back.”
I heard her give a weak little sigh. “I’m sorry, BJ, but I–”
Hearing her use the senator’s stupid nickname for me was the last straw. I wrenched the phone from my ear, and only its superior structural engineering saved it from being snapped right in two. You get what you pay for. I wanted to throw it down into the little courtyard below, but was stopped at the last moment by my brain’s reminding me that I very likely no longer had a paycheck coming to me. No candidate, no campaign; no campaign, no job; no job, no way to pay for tools of the trade every time I broke them.
Rationally, Clio had made the smart move. Realistically, if she’d been there in the room with me and not all the way over on the other fucking side of the country, I would have tried to kill her with my bare hands. So what if she was probably feeling guilty? She’d made the choice of career over loyalty. She was gone and I was left.
Fuck dammit, what was I going to tell Kayin?
I spent most of that next day with that phone glued to my ear, first pacing around the balcony, then leaning against the railing, then finally sitting slumped in a corner, my knees tucked up to my chest. Every phone call I made was another fire extinguisher turned on a raging inferno, calling in every favor I had and some I didn’t to get people to promise to wait.
At some point during a conversation with some foundation’s press secretary, Mauri wordlessly dropped a burger and fries in my lap — along with a handwritten note that just read family isn’t coming. I swallowed the food without tasting it and felt it hit my stomach like a rock. Her eyes were red like she’d been crying; I focused on my anger so mine wouldn’t be. Even in the midst of my associated rage and self-pity, though, I felt even worse for her. She’d only been with us for two months, and it’d been Clio who’d gotten her the job. She probably felt as abandoned as I did.
I’d almost worked my way through my necessary campaign-related connections and was about to try Kayin’s half-brother again with a what the fuck do you mean ‘not coming’? call when Dr. Hood walked out and extended a hand. “Time to wake him,” he said, and I let him help me up.
There’s something weird about coma sleep, something that’s kind of hard to explain if you’ve never seen it. It’s not like sleep so much as like someone just pretending to sleep, in a play, trying a little too hard, staying a little too still — or maybe it’s even more like watching someone play dead. I’d had second-row seats to a production of Julius Caesar when I was nine or so, and I’d sat there through that whole third-act eulogy scene, transfixed on how the (presumably) still-living actor playing Caesar lay there for that whole speech, his chest only rising and falling the faintest bit with every breath. Anyone farther away would never have seen. That was all I could think of as they led me in again to Kayin, now that I was over the initial shock of seeing the visible implants. I’d been told that cosmetic surgery would be able cover that up. More to the point, I’d been told to tell him that.
I took his hand, drew several deep breaths, and at last nodded to Dr. Hood, who tapped a few instructions into a control panel. Seconds later, one dark human eye and one flashing metal sphere turned to look at me.
“Hey, BJ,” Kayin said — or tried to say, because what came out was a slurred jumble that barely made its way to language. I squeezed his hand tight and felt his fingers twitch in my grip. Panic filled those mismatched eyes. “What…?”
“Everything’s all right,” I said, trying to sound as strong and in control as I could. Fuck, I was no good at this. This was supposed to be Clio’s thing. “You’re safe. You’re in the hospital. Do you remember what happened?”
Kayin looked around the room with growing alarm, even though the machines that regulated his heartbeat and respiration kept his body plodding along at an even keel. When he opened his mouth, the right side parted slightly and the left just fell, giving him a half-faced slump I’d seen mostly on stroke patients in my great-grandparents’ nursing home; he closed it shortly after and just shook his head.
“Do you remember the rally at the school?” I saw him frown, thinking. “At the elementary school, in the gym, with the big Alaskan flag painted on the ceiling. Remember? You asked what the hell the kids would have to be doing to see that. Remember?” A little glint of recognition sparked in his expression, and he gave a fractional nod. “And–” And Clio had made a joke about your education platform’s sex-ed policies, I stopped myself from saying, because the follow-up question about Clio’s current whereabouts was not a worm cannister I wished at this moment to open. “The big flag, the big flag on the ceiling. Remember?”
He was trying; strain was written across every still-functioning muscle on his face. Gods made archipelagos rise from the sea with less effort. But it wasn’t there. He couldn’t remember and I couldn’t forget. What a team we were.
I cleared my throat before trying to speak again. “You got, well, kinda … shot. Right there.” I took my hand that wasn’t gripping his like a vise and touched ever-so-lightly the right side of his head, near but not at the still-sutured point of entry. “And you’re fine,” I said, then immediately wished I hadn’t. “I mean, you’re going to be. It’s going to be all right, it’s–”
That was when I looked him in the one real eye he had left and saw Senator Kayin Rask staring back at me, the man who’d started running for something, anything at the age of twelve, losing neither his middle school student council election nor any race since. He was a kind man, and he did what he did because he believed it would make the world a better place, and he was so allergic to bullshit that if I started heaping it on him now, his throat would close up and we’d lose him anyway. They’d said he’d still be the same, that the bullet had missed the parts that hold memories and knowledge and all the little quirks that make people who we are. They’d explained it like, oh, he had the good kind of traumatic brain injury. But I don’t think it was until that moment I realized how afraid I’d been that the lights would come on and no one would be home.
“You got shot in the head and lost … a not-good chunk of your brain.” I saw the good side of his face tense a little, so I just pressed right on through. This was no more difficult than a press conference, I kept telling myself, and I’d given a million and three of those. It was a lie, of course, but I’m a terrific liar. “So the doctors had to give you some artificial parts. If you’re having trouble thinking right now, it’s just because of how long they’ve had you under, and that should clear up, but–” I took a deep breath. “It’s going to take a little time to get you moving again.”
He was a little groggy, that much was clear, but underneath the haze of sedatives, those little wheels were starting to go — perhaps literally now, I didn’t know how the implants worked. “Are,” he slurred, his teeth clenching with the effort of the consonant there. “We.” He took several seconds to produce that initial w sound, and even so, it came out mostly as noiseless air. “Still.” His good right hand held mine like he had a vendetta against it. “On.” The strain of trying to make every sound as clear as possible had caused beads of sweat to form on his forehead, and I saw the heart monitor behind him register the effort. “The.” His tongue stuck all the way out of his mouth before coming back to his teeth for that one. “Ballot?”
I hadn’t been in a medically induced coma, so I had no excuse for how long it took me to understand the question — not the words, those were easy, but the actual question. “Um,” I answered, like the true political genius wonderboy I was, or at least was supposed to be. “Uh, yeah. Yeah. We are.” My free hand had already started wandering toward the pocket where I’d stashed my phone, ready to call party headquarters and tell them to get their runners-up ready for prime time. No one would think less of him for sitting out a cycle, or maybe even permanently. Time to face facts and put this thing to bed.
He closed his eyes — or closed his organic eye, while his metal one remained eerily half-open — and gave a little nod. “November,” he said, placing the word out like it was supposed to calm all of us, like its palliative properties were self-evident. “Can do.”
Holy shit, we still had a campaign. I looked at Mauri and saw tears trickling down over her smile, then looked back to Kayin and saw the right side of his mouth tugging upward by smug degrees. It looked like all three of us had something to live for.
For the next three months, anyway.
The image flipped back to a serious-faced reporter, framed against the familiar backdrop of the Seward Northwest Regional Federal Courthouse. “While Blackbourne has already entered guilty pleas for all charges related to the shooting that left Senator Rask in critical condition last month, proceedings are underway to determine if he acted alone, or if the attack was part of a larger–”
“Turn it off,” Kayin growled, looking up at me through a curtain of soaked bangs. He’d gone too long without a haircut — if you didn’t count shaving off the left half for surgical purposes, and as far as fashion choices went, I didn’t — and when he was soaked in sweat, as he was now, it was long enough to fall into his eyes. “Tortured enough right now.”
“All of the Geneva Conventions would disagree with your definition,” said Mauri, who had become the bad cop in our recovery team without asking me first. Still, I had to admit that she, standing nearly seven feet tall in those heels of hers, was better-suited to the task than I’d ever be.
Now the reporter was saying something about how both YFAC and FreeYu had denied any ties to Gaspar Blackbourne, and Kayin set his gaze to dagger-fine. “Off.”
I pushed the button and the screen vanished. “Thought you liked seeing yourself on television,” I quipped, trying to keep it light.
Kayin staggered forward, then took a step, then staggered again, as the treadmill beneath him matched his irregular pace. “The senator,” he gasped out between breaths and stumbles, unable to concentrate on moving both the left side of his mouth and his left leg at once, “from the North At…lantic States….” He took a few more steps, eyes closed with concentration. “Politely requests … the gentleman … go fuck himself.”
Mauri burst into a laugh and squeezed my shoulder. “You heard the man. Boss’ orders.”
“I’ll put it on my to-do list.” A little chime sounded, and I pointed to the clock on the wall, where all the numbers were now bright zeroes. “Okay, torture’s over.”
Kayin shook his head, sending drops of sweat flying. No matter how many times I’d been in the PT room, I’d never gotten used to the way it reeked — nor had I ever had any reason to wonder why it did. “Little longer,” he said, as though he hadn’t already spent an hour there every day this week.
Mauri reached for the machine’s controls and let the belt slowly grind itself to a halt. “Nope. You want to walk into the press conference, I want you not to collapse two steps in. And speaking of the big day, I’ve got to go get friendly with some press offices. You good to get him back to his room?” she asked me.
I nodded; I was getting good at a lot of hospital things lately. If (and I didn’t want to think when) my once-promising political career went belly-up, maybe I could find a second career as a physical therapist. “Go away,” Kayin said, waving her off with great affection. His speech had gotten more understandable by leaps and bounds since the shooting, but he still saved his longer sentences for effect. She tapped off a quick salute and strode off, probably to make some idiots sorry they’d gotten out of bed this morning. Being the bad cop was her full-time job — or it was now, anyway, seeing as the previous position-holder had resigned now almost three weeks ago.
With a sigh, Kayin leaned back against the wall and stared at his reflection in the nearest mirrored wall. “Hair plug?” he asked, tilting his head to the right.
“They said they’d bring it by tomorrow,” I told him. I would have given him grief about vanity, except he was right — in our business, a pretty face counted for a lot, and not having part of a titanium skull plate exposed went a long way toward not reminding voters that you’d recently had a large chunk of your brain replaced. I hadn’t told him about the buzz, but I didn’t have to: Governor Zegher’s people had been appropriately sympathetic and horrified for the first week or so, but those kind words had quickly become knives. Could voters trust a candidate with a programmable brain? Wasn’t there so much about this technology we just didn’t know? Did America really need a cyborg in charge of the North Atlantic?
I’d told every reporter who’d approached me with that kind of language to fuck off, sometimes verbatim. But if they were asking, people were wondering, and I could talk myself blue in the face, but voters wouldn’t believe it until they saw the man himself come out and vouch for his own well-being — if even then.
I went to the panel to call the transit chair, but I felt Kayin’s hand on my shoulder — his left one, so it mostly just thumped and slid off, but the effort had been the important part. “Let’s wa–” he started, then cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “Let’s. Walk. Back.” Each word was crisp and martial and almost clear, and the sentence they made when put together was lunacy.
“Hell no.” I shook my head. “You just spent an hour walking nowhere, and your room’s a wing over and two flights up.”
Kayin nodded, and for a moment I had this crazy notion that I’d actually convinced him of something. That, of course, was before he turned toward the door and began to shuffle out into the hall on his own.
“Whoa!” I scrambled over to block his progress and nearly wiped out; the hospital seemed to polish its floors with banana peels. “Wing over, two flights up,” I repeated. It took me, with my short but otherwise normal legs, a good five minutes to make the trek.
“Know where it is.” Kayin put his stronger right hand in my chest and pushed me back, and would likely have pushed himself right over had the door frame not been right behind him.
Now he was just being ridiculous. “You don’t have anyone to impress,” I said, pointing to the halls. A few medical droids wheeled about here and there, and the only human seemed far more interested in tinkering with her complicated prosthetic leg than in watching anyone else’s struggles. “Save it for the cameras.”
With a set in his jaw so fierce it actually got both sides of his face in line, Kayin grabbed my tie and let the six-inch difference in our heights work for his benefit. “You’re fired,” he told me, then gave me another little push and began his bizarre half-Frankenstein lumber down the hall.
Against all my better nurturing instincts, I folded my arms and leaned against the wall, watching him go. It was such a strange work of asymmetry to see him go, where his right leg stepped and right arm swung naturally, but his left leg dragged along more than not, and his left arm hung stiffly at his side. Every time he shifted his weight to his left leg, I was sure he’d topple over, and only by getting his right one in place just in time did he continually avert disaster. He’d get two steps, I figured, and then have to ask for help, and I’d get to go to him and summon the transit car, and we’d both have a nice ride back to his recovery suite. Okay, three steps. Five. Ten.
By the time I realized he wasn’t actually going to stop, he’d made it all the way to the woman with the prosthetic leg, who looked up at him with a puzzled frown as he stopped right before her and extended his hand. She took a long minute to stand, using her hands to walk herself up the wall to an upright position, but Kayin stayed stock-still until she placed her hand in his. “I’m Senator Kayin Rask,” he said, and every word was its own deliberate work of thought and pause for response. “And you are…?”
“Libena Frazier,” she answered, and the growing look of awe on her face reminded me of how things had been before. It only lasted a moment, though, before even I could see her gaze begin to shift to the exposed circuitry in Kayin’s head.
“Hi, Libena,” he said, neither calling attention to her wandering focus nor turning to block her view. “How are you doing today?”
I’d worked on all sorts of campaigns before Kayin’s, and I’d always thought that the worst of the bullshit questions. Especially from politicians, but even from clerks, bots, and people small-talking at parties. Everybody asks and nobody cares. If you answer anything but ‘fine’, you’ve broken the social contract that allows bullshit questions like that to perpetuate.
And then came the day where I met then-Mayor Rask at a fundraiser in San Salvador, and he shook my hand and looked me in the eye and asked me how I was doing. And son of a bitch, the next three minutes of my life involved actually telling him. He heard how I was jet-lagged and recently food-poisoned and sick of tropical humidity, and how I was even sicker of rearranging the deck chairs on Representative Lukska’s sinking ship. He listened to every second, and when I’d finally run out of steam, he’d told me he was sorry things didn’t seem to be going my way. It wasn’t much, and it hadn’t kept me from feeling those bad clams for another two days, but it had made me feel like he actually cared — and in politics, which can be so isolating and fake, that was about the best feeling in the world.
Libena looked down at her leg and sighed. “Damn thing’s still not working right,” she said; her speech had the clipped vowels of a working-class background. “Fifth refit and it’s still all like hell. You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” said Kayin with a smile, “I know how it is.”
He made it standing and talking with her for five minutes — mostly listening while she told the tale of the monorail construction accident that had crushed her hip and everything below, but making comments as appropriate — before making his good-byes; then he made it all the way down the end of the hall and around the corner. Once he was out of her line of sight, though, he collapsed, and would have become a Kayin-shaped pile on the floor if I hadn’t been right there. “You are a colossal idiot,” I said, grabbing him around the waist with both arms. The cool, arid hospital air had dried his skin, but he still smelled of sweat and warmth. He needed a bath. We both probably did.
With a grunt, Kayin used me as an anchor while he regained his balance, and to his credit he only grumbled a little as I positioned myself with his left arm over my shoulder and my right arm around his waist. “Every vote counts,” he said, though now he wasn’t quite so ‘on’, his speech began to slur again.
“And what if she was going to vote for you already?” I kept my eyes forward as we half-walked, half-stumbled along, trying not to flinch at how close this had gotten me to the exposed circuitry. I didn’t know if it was just my imagination or if I could hear the high whine of the chips as they did their business, and I didn’t want to ask. The last thing Kayin needed right now was one more person to call attention to what everyone else would be thinking as soon as they saw the implants.
“Maybe she’ll bring a friend.” I could hear Kayin’s soft laugh, tucked between exhales of exertion as we hobbled on down toward the elevators. “Didn’t I fire you?”
“Take it up with payroll,” I said, and though I put on the grumpiest face I could to say so, it did me good to hear him out-and-out laugh at that.
“How did I look?”
I jumped so hard at the sound of his voice that I dropped my newsreader into my lap. Light still glowed from around the very edges of the windows, but the rest of the glass was on its shade setting, giving a more reasonable approximation of night. “Crap, I thought you were asleep,” I said, composing myself. It seemed I’d started to doze off too.
Kayin looked around the room before shaking his head. “Wanted them out,” he slurred, and presumably the ‘them’ had been every reporter and political insider who’d shown up for his first post-shooting press conference. He’d walked in on his own, read a prepared statement, answered a few pre-vetted questions, and walked out also on his own power, though he’d looked grateful when I’d had the chair ready just past the door. An impromptu strategy session had convened around his bedside, until the candidate himself had started shutting his eyes and Mauri had moved things to the conference room down the hall. Sneaky bastard.
“How are you feeling?” I scooted the chair closer to the side of the bed, keeping my voice low just in case someone was lurking outside.
“Choked,” he said, gesturing to his necktie with his right hand. “Could you…?”
“Sure, sure.” We’d taken off his jacket and shoes before helping him back into bed, but everything else was still there. I hooked a finger in the knot of his tie, just below his jaw, and tugged it rakishly loose, then set myself to unfastening the topmost button of his collar. The backs of my knuckles brushed the underside of his chin as I did, and I wondered when this had gotten normal for us. He liked handshakes and backpats and photo-hugs, but I’d never thought of Kayin as particularly into casual contact, and I could’ve counted on one hand the number of times we’d just touched one another prior to six weeks ago. I got him undone down to the top of his undershirt, then stepped back. “Better?”
He nodded, taking a deep breath and letting it out slow. “Better.”
I sat back down. “You really were on fire up there. Strong answers, very confident. Voters love an inspiring story.”
Kayin made some expression that I couldn’t quite read, but I chalked it up to his having trouble with muscle control when he was tired. We’d worked on expressions with a therapist and a mirror, and we’d gotten to what I liked to call the good-enough stage: quick enough to look natural and human, but with just the slightest lag between halves of his face to remind people he’d suffered a tragedy. “Hair?”
“Perfect.” I reached up and tugged a strand back into place. We’d decided — or, rather, I’d decided and he’d agreed — to leave a patch over his left eye for now, giving as healthy of an ‘after’ image as we could while still playing up the terrible wound he’d suffered in the service of his country. The media hadn’t run with the ‘hero’ angle, which was fine, as that was the kind of thing best reserved for people who rescued orphaned kittens from burning buildings; they had, however, called his efforts toward recovery and determination to stay in the race ‘brave’, and ‘brave’, I could work with. ‘Brave’ was electable.
He reached for a glass of water beside his bed and took a long, thoughtful sip. “Have you heard from Clio?” he asked, as though that were any kind of a casual question, as though we were still talking about advertising money and stump speeches and political endorsements. As though this were any kind of normal.
I’d spent some time thinking of how to approach the subject of her leaving, and I’d planned out at least thirty good strategies for responding to his inevitable inquiry, but fuck everything, I couldn’t remember a single one. “She, um.” I was torn down the middle between the route of polite euphemism and the path of that fucking Judas rat. “She said she had to … you know….”
Kayin cut me off with a gentle wave. “She pick a winner?”
She’d had a winner, I did not say, but I thought it very loudly. “Yeah. Bodilsen, for the governor’s seat down in Florida. Had a fighting chance before, but now it’s a sure thing. All the pollsters agree.”
With a thoughtful nod, Kayin shut his eyes and folded his hands on his stomach. I stood by there for a long moment, motionless, barely daring to breathe, hoping that he’d fall asleep and this would be the end of that particular nightmare conversation. But he opened his good eye again. “Mad?” he asked, with a smile that said he, at least, wasn’t.
“Who, she or me?”
“If you were not convalescing and running an active campaign,” I said, balling my fists in my pockets, “I would probably hijack the nearest vehicle, drive it to Florida myself, and punch her in the kidneys. A lot.”
“You don’t drive,” Kayin pointed out.
“Excuse me: hijack the nearest vehicle, drive it to Florida learning how to operate it as I went, and then punch her in the kidneys.” I pounded a fist into my open palm, probably looking about as tough as a hamster making the same gesture. Sure, if she’d actually been there, she probably could’ve called my bluff on the threat, but it still felt good to say.
Kayin nodded as though this were a sensible plan all around. “She probably made the smart choice,” he said at last, his words so mumbled I almost couldn’t make them out.
“Yeah, well.” I grabbed the blanket at the end of his bed and pulled it up over his legs, tucking it back near his waist. “You don’t pay me to be smart. You pay me to win elections. And who the fuck wins elections by being smart?”
He reached out to take my hand, and I might have pulled away if I hadn’t noticed he was using his left side to do it. I supposed this counted as therapy, so I stayed still and let him. It was like being grasped by a warm but ill-programmed robot, every motion its own separate routine; first his flat palm met the back of my hand, then it began to bend, and finally each finger curled around mine, joint by joint. “I wouldn’t have blamed you, BJ.”
There was something that had been bubbling up inside of me every since I’d been ushered into the ambulance at the school, something complicated and horrible and malignant, and the deep, sympathetic look Kayin gave me right then came perilously close to breaking the surface and letting it loose. So I stiffened my spine and gave the back of his hand the most professional pat I could muster. “Well, that makes one of us,” I said, not quite able to meet his eye as I did. I slipped from his grasp and walked toward the door. “I’m going to go make sure Mauri’s doing all right. You need anything, you know where to find me.” And I left that room and threw myself into my job, just like the coward I was.
I fell in love with Dr. Bébhinn Aldana the moment she walked into the room, hit Kayin in the head with a therapy pillow, and told the rest of us to call her Dr. Bey. It was a thoroughly platonic and slightly terrified love, mind you, but it was love nonetheless. “If you keep overexerting yourself before your implants have re-established all their connections,” she said, pulling up row after row of charts showing Kayin’s biometric data, “all they will learn how to do is do things wrong.” She was shorter than I was and looked like if a truck hit her, we’d all be sending get-well cards to the truck.
If Kayin had been a dog, he would have put his tail between his legs right then and there. “Sorry, but time is a concern–”
Dr. Bey picked up another therapy pillow and cocked her arm back for a pitch, and he shut the hell up. I wanted to have all this woman’s children. “Time is your concern. Getting you healed correctly is my concern. I was born in the Baltic Federation. I have six brothers. We’ll see who gives first.”
Beyond impressed, I gave her a minor round of applause, which she acknowledged with a chipper nod. It wasn’t that his first two physical therapists had been bad or ineffectual, so much as they’d just been too willing to accept Kayin’s determination as a good sign. Mauri had found Dr. Bey in the sauna kicking a malfunctioning phototherapy machine to death and suggested this might be a worthwhile change. In that moment, I couldn’t have agreed with her more.
Even Kayin looked cowed. He wasn’t the type to pull the don’t-you-know-who-I-am bullshit, but at the same time, I could tell he’d gotten used to having people defer to him already so he didn’t have to get to that point. She knew just fine; she just didn’t care. Kayin took a deep breath and grabbed his left hand with his right, then gathered them both politely in his lap. “You understand what’s at stake. For me.”
Dr. Bey folded her arms across her chest. “Oh, I do. But I don’t think you do. See–” She bent down and picked up his left foot, then raised it so his leg stuck out straight. “Hold it right there.” She let go and it dropped back against the end of the bed, bouncing a little as it kicked. “Why didn’t you hold it up?” she asked, as though he’d done it on purpose.
Kayin looked chastised. “I can’t, it–”
“You can walk. So you should be able to do this.” Dr. Bey straightened his leg again, and again, the second she let go, it fell back to where it had been. “Tell me why you can walk but you can’t do that. And before you blame the muscles, it’s not the muscles. They’re still strong.”
With his lower lip caught thoughtfully in his teeth, Kayin stared down at his leg. After a few seconds, I realized he was trying to move it, but it wasn’t budging. His breathing became harsh, and I could see his good hand grasp his other in a death grip, but nothing happened. At long last, he sighed and collapsed back against the pillows. “I can’t,” he said, his voice half-choked in his throat. “I don’t know how.”
I thought she might chastise him for such an odd answer, but she gave him a bright thumbs-up. “Exactly. You can walk because your whole body knows how to walk. You can’t move just your leg because the part of your brain that could tell you how to move just your leg isn’t where your body expects it to be anymore. Think of how you’d navigate your hometown if all the houses burned down, so everyone moved in to the office buildings. That’s what the inside of your head is like right now. You can’t find Old Mr. Ng in the duplex on the corner anymore; now he’s living above the bank. But he’s still in town.”
“That,” said Kayin, who’d nodded all through her analogy, “oddly makes sense.”
“Of course it does.” Dr. Bey reached for his ankle again, and when he looked anxious, she smiled. “I promise I won’t drop you now,” she said, so he nodded and she raised it again, then lowered it and raised it a few more times, speaking as she did. “When you work with patients with traumatic brain injury — and I do, so let’s just say, when you’re me — most of the time what you do is try to re-teach a brain something it used to know, but it forgot. But you,” she said, poking Kayin in the leg, “didn’t just forget; you literally lost the part of your brain that used to do that. And what got put in its place already knows what you need it to know. The rest of you just doesn’t know where to find it. And that’s why I’m going to recommend ballroom dancing.”
I wish I’d had a camera to preserve that moment. Kayin frowned, his jaw slightly agape, as though he wasn’t sure he’d heard her quite right, and Mauri coughed as she giggled and drank her iced tea at the same time. I, on the other hand, am sure I went as white as the lights surrounding Kayin’s bed. It was like opening a door to find your mom giving all your friends a slide show of your naked baby pictures. Having made the mistake of showing weakness, I was then instant prey for Dr. Bey, who looked at me and said, “And a little bird tells me you know how already.”
If I could have shot lasers from my eyes, I would have fried Mauri to a crisp, and she affected a look of pure devilish innocence before grabbing her phone and slapping it on her ear. “Oh no a phone call have to take this carry on without me,” she said all in one breath, scampering out of the room. I supposed I’d have to kill her later.
“I didn’t know that,” said Kayin, watching this all with a smile. Well, glad someone was amused.
“A long time ago,” I said. “Decades. Centuries.”
“High school,” Mauri said.” Dr. Bey nodded toward the door through which my traitorous colleague had departed. “She said that you were a regional champion. Pictures in the newspaper and all. So–” She looked me up and down. “Two years ago?”
“Seven,” I corrected her. I was going to turn out like my grandmother, eighty years old and still getting carded. My vanity, however, had called my own bluff. Damn it to hell, when I’d told Mauri post-shooting to vet everyone on the campaign, I hadn’t meant me.
Still wearing that smile that said he knew better than to laugh, Kayin scooted closer to the end of the bed. “All right, I’ll bite: Why dancing?”
Dr. Bey swept her arms gracefully side to side, all the while still holding on to Kayin’s leg. “It’s beautiful and elegant, and best of all, you don’t know how to do it.” True to her word, she didn’t drop him this time, but let his leg gently join the other, dangling over the side of the bed. “If you practice what you already know, all you’re going to learn is how to make the strong parts compensate for the weak. If everything has to learn something new — your body, your organic brain, the implants — then it all has to learn together. And you can figure out where all the people in your town live now, so to speak.”
I raised my hand and gave a little wave. “May I point out that this is not in my job description? And that also you fired me recently?”
“You only remember I fired you when it’s convenient for you.” Kayin reached over and patted me on the arm, and when he turned that smile on me, I might as well have been an ice cube pitched into the sun. “It’ll be fun. I’ll look like an idiot, and you may laugh at me. We’ll consider it your quarterly bonus.”
From the moment Dr. Bey had brought it up, I’d never expected any outcome other than agreement, but I’d figured there’d at least be time for me to put up a fight about getting dragged straight back into high school, even if it was back to the one thing I’d been good at. Of course, considering that I was still the ninety-eight-pound weakling who’d chosen dancing as a way out of all other physical requirements, it probably wouldn’t have been much of a fight.
“The tempo keeps changing.”
“The tempo does not keep changing.” I pushed Kayin upright again, then put my hand back on his waist. “It’s Bach. You could time atomic decay by Bach.”
“Next question, Mr. Senator!” Mauri was perched cross-legged atop a table she probably wasn’t supposed to be sitting on, but with the way I’d seen her and Dr. Bey looking at one another lately, I’d have put money on Mauri’s ability to get away with damn near anything in this hospital. She tapped a sparkly tablet with an equally sparkly stylus. “How have your implants affected your personality?”
“I don’t see how that’s any–” Kayin started to say, but he took a misstep forward and stomped on my toes at the same time Mauri made a buzzer sound with her mouth.
“Headline: Robo-Senator Not Programmed to Answer! Should We Elect Our New Cybernetic Overlords?” She traced lines in the air as though reading the letters in two-foot floating font. “You know better. Just because you don’t want to talk about it doesn’t mean you can’t. Andie Ybarra will bring down all of GNN’s dogs on you if you so much as hesitate.”
We kept up an awkward sort of box step as she talked, far out of tempo with the minuet I’d set to repeat as long as we needed, but at least he was getting the steps in mostly the right order and in mostly the right places. Most of the time, anyway. Convention would have had him lead, given his height advantage, but the thirty initial seconds I’d tried that arrangement had suggested throwing convention out the window for the time being. So I used my hand on his back to pull him forward and tried to use my hand holding his to guide him back, though that failed whenever he forgot to keep enough tension in that arm to push against. This was not easy. “Well,” I asked, trying a different tack, “how has it affected your personality? For us, not for the cameras.”
Kayin set his jaw in that angry way he could get when he knew I was right but didn’t like it. “The accident as a whole,” he began, bypassing my suggestion and going straight for his public-appearance voice, even though his delivery was still muddied by his disobedient left side, “has helped remind me just how precious life is–”
“Barf,” I said, pretending to gag.
“And has helped me,” he continued, raising his voice over my objection, “and has helped me realize how blessed I am to have such wonderful friends and supporters, who aren’t pains in my ass at all.”
Mauri snorted. “Yeah, they’ll buy that.”
Kayin straightened his shoulders even as he stumbled, bumping his chest against mine. “I can’t take any of my days for granted anymore. Each one is a precious gift–”
“You said ‘precious’ twice,” I pointed out.
“Try ‘treasured’,” Mauri offered.
“Each one is a treasured gift– No, that sounds terrible.” Kayin shook his head. “Each one is a gift, which I now realize I must treasure as I live life to its fullest. And these great realizations–”
I tried to draw him a little more into the tempo of the music. “Stop saying ‘realize’ and words like ‘realize’.”
Kayin rolled his eyes. “They have come not because of the machines that now extend my life, but because of how close I came to losing it. The implants — which my doctors have so skillfully inserted and carefully monitored — are little different from a prosthetic leg or a set of crutches.”
Mauri covered her face with the tablet. “Oh my God, do not say that.”
“It’s true,” said Kayin as I reached for his left arm and repositioned it, reminding him to keep some tension on it. The more I could focus on perfecting his form, the less I had to participate in this particular conversation.
“It is light-years from true. Especially if you’re one of the millions of North American voters who’ve never met someone with reconstructive neural hardware.” Mauri uncrossed her legs and let her feet, clad in astonishing silver platform shoes, dangle over the side of the table. “Crutches and prosthetics are well within their ranges of experience. But anyone over thirty hears you’ve got machines where your brain used to be, and all they’re going to think is how Uplink went down.”
“Lot of people under thirty, too,” I pointed out, speaking for my demographic. We’d agreed not to tell him, but both Mauri and I had already seen different opposition commercials that showed the grisly ‘after’ pictures of the teens who’d tried to join the global network by hardwiring it into their brains.
Mauri nodded. “So I’ll ask again, Senator: How have your implants affected your personality?”
There was a pause, and then Kayin’s feet stopped, so I stopped pushing and let the dance be over. He didn’t take his left hand away from where I held it up, though, and he left his right arm pressed against my shoulder. His handsome brow was beaded with sweat, and I could tell it wasn’t all from what I’d been making him do. He took a great, deep breath and let it out between tight lips before speaking: “They … haven’t, though. I mean, have they?”
Mauri and I looked at one another, then back at him, and both of us honestly shook our heads. “I’ll be honest,” I said, “I was scared shitless they would.”
“But you can’t say they haven’t,” Mauri said, “or everyone will think you’re lying.”
“Exactly.” Kayin took another deep breath and slumped forward a bit, and I supported what of his weight I could take without collapsing myself. After a few seconds of this, though, he stood up again, back straight, chin at full charm-the-crowd angle. “All right. Thank you for asking, Ms. Ybarra, because that’s a complicated question, but I feel it’s an important one for us to address. This incident and the recovery have been stressful, for me and for my loved ones, and I feel it’s difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between surgical necessities and situational stresses in considering how I’m a different man from the man I was a few months ago. But I promise you and everyone else this: If I felt for a moment that my judgment, my integrity, or my passion had been compromised, I would never have agreed to continue this campaign. And I want to stress that I trust the people closest to me and their commitment to the North American public, such that I know if they had any doubts that this was the right course of action, they would never have agreed to let me. Everything else is what happens to a man who’s had a very real brush with death and who has had to re-evaluate what’s important in his life. That good?”
For a few seconds, neither of us moved; then Mauri started clapping, and I would have joined her had my hands not been occupied. “Wow,” I said, feeling a little swoon come over me. That man could read a porridge recipe so it stirred your soul. “But don’t overuse ‘stress’.”
“Fuck dammit,” groaned Kayin, but he was smiling just the same.
Mauri reached over and brushed the left side of Kayin’s jaw. “Did you hear yourself?” she asked, and when he frowned with confusion, she tapped his lips. “You sounded like you used to.”
That brought Kayin’s expression into a full grin, and he turned its full radiance on me. “We’d better keep dancing then,” he said, and when he took his next step in time, I had no choice but to follow.
As it turned out, Juneau was pretty from above. I just wished I’d been in a state to enjoy it, or anything else about my first time outside Prudhoe General in two months. Instead, I was trying not to throw up.
The medical transport was only really big enough for two, so Mauri had agreed to take a later flight and do the wrap-up with the rest of the campaign. It was the exit we’d planned for anyway, though we’d envisioned it as involving a little less drama. Seemed like nothing was ever easy.
Kayin sat next to me in the tiny cabin, body pressed against mine, hands folded in his lap, head slightly bowed. There was a viewscreen port in front of him, but neither of us wanted to turn it on and see what was no doubt playing on every news channel: a lovely, high-definition clip of Senator Kayin Rask shaking Governor Lindsey Rogan Zegher’s hand — and then promptly collapsing, as though his left side had just decided it was time to stop holding him up. Aides at the event had rushed to help him up, and he’d been able to continue the debate with admirable poise, even scoring a few stunning points off Zegher’s lackluster education policy, but the PR damage had been done. We’d both been doing this too long to hope otherwise.
“Well,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the roar of the engines, “at least if Zegher’s people jump on this, they’ll look like assholes for laughing at an injured man.”
He smiled, but I could see the exhaustion behind his eyes. “They don’t have to jump on anything. They could even outright praise me for my courage. It still won’t let that off the news cycle.” His voice was soft, so much so that I had to lean in to hear. I could only hope that voters had been paying attention to his words, and not to the way he sounded when he said them, or the way his mouth sagged and his eyepatch masked half his expressions as he talked. Visually, even I had to admit he was a bit of a hard sell right now.
I sighed and patted his knee, the most comforting gesture I could manage in such close quarters. “Sleep will help. Everything will be better in the morning.”
His gaze of his turned to the view below, and I could see the city lights reflected in the darkness of his organic eye; the other was still covered by the eyepatch. He didn’t like wearing either it or the hairpiece that covered the machinery under his skull, but we’d all agreed that keeping visual as ‘normal’ as possible was key here, at least for now. “Maybe we could get the transit to swing by Whitehorse,” he said. “Just for the night.”
The matter of his discharge — or, more importantly, his lack thereof — had become something of a sore spot, one both Mauri and I avoided as best we could. Dr. Bey had been sympathetic but firm, explaining in detail just how closely Kayin was being monitored every second of the day, especially during his sleep. She wanted him to have gone six weeks without an incident before she let him out of her immediate care; I didn’t know whether or not tonight had just reset that counter. “Hey, it’s not so bad at the Doc Box.” I gave him a gentle nudge with my elbow. “All the comforts of home, with a little added antiseptic smell.”
“You could go home,” he said without turning to me.
I’d moved in to my condo last December, but hadn’t stayed there more than a handful of nights a month since then, and hadn’t even seen it since the end of June. My parents had sold their house last year and moved to Pyongyang; my three older siblings lived in Syracuse, Addis Ababa, and New Nairobi. ‘Home’ was a very remote concept for me. “And do what? Sit around worrying about you? I’d rather do that up close.”
Kayin shook his head with a smile. “I guess I’ve never asked: What do you do when you’re not doing what you do?”
I laughed. “I don’t ever not do what I do. That’s why I’m so good when I do it. Even when I’m not doing it, I’m probably thinking about doing it.”
“That sounds lonely.”
“And that sounds like the pot feeling sorry for the kettle.” I poked him in his thigh, which made him chuckle. “Come on, I’m not going to hear my lack of a personal life eulogized by someone else who’s married to his job.”
The plane banked hard to the right, sandwiching me between Kayin and the wall of the transport. “You know that’s polled badly for me.”
“I know that’s polled very badly for you.” Voters equated family with stability, in politics if in no other part of their lives. Part of my job was to account for gut reactions, and a lot of guts out there didn’t like Kayin’s uncoupled status. In all my years with him, I’d never seen him date anyone but Clio, and even that had been … well.
And then out of the blue, ten thousand feet in the air, he dropped this bomb on me: “You know that’s why Clio and I got together, right?”
On any given day, I’m handed two dozen pieces of critical new information, and it’s my job to fake like I knew them all already. I have made a career of being unsurprised. But my jaw dropped so hard at that I could damn near hear it hitting the mountain range below. “Uh,” I said, because I’m a professional political aide, full of poise and grace, on top of every narrative. Damn straight.
With a little laugh, Kayin leaned back in the seat and shut his eyes. “So we see how well that worked out,” he said, that rueful smile still playing at his lips.
I couldn’t say I’d ever pried too much into Kayin’s relationship with Clio — a big helping of None Of My Business disguised the more relevant Didn’t Want To Know — but I’d just assumed their professional distance had more to do with the professional than the distance. “Sort of a trial run?” I asked. “Test balloon girlfriend? See how it polled?”
“Something like that.” Kayin took a deep breath and let it out in something just this side of a sigh, then turned in his seat so his knees and mine bumped up against one another. “Can I confess something awful to you?”
I was about to make a joke that sure, I was like a priest without the vow of celibacy, when I remembered how long it had been since I’d gotten laid and shut the whole thing down before it could start. “Sure.”
“I was sort of glad. To find out she was gone. Not–” He drummed his right hand on his knee, a thinking gesture. “Not glad to have her gone. I miss her, personally and professionally. No one works a crowd of reporters like she does. But just glad to have that over, and glad….”
“…To not be the one who had to end it?” I guessed, filling in the blank after he trailed off.
With a sheepish little laugh, Kayin nodded. “It was a bad fit. She actually wanted a romantic partner, and I couldn’t have been a worse one if I’d tried. I don’t think I’ll ever love anyone more than I love my job. Is that awful?”
“If it’s awful, I’m in the same awful boat as you,” I said. It was strange, how close he and I were despite how we’d barely talked about what happened in our lives before we met one another. But if you couldn’t feel safe doing that in a sealed aircraft a mile over the Alaska Range, where could you? “I went on exactly one date in college, and I turned down a second when I did the math and realized I couldn’t graduate summa cum laude, do all the internships I wanted, clerk summers in the House, and make time to keep a significant other happy. Guess what got struck from the budget.”
A beep from the machinery announced that we’d be starting our descent, and we both fastened our safety belts. “I never wanted to pry,” said Kayin, “but I always did wonder if you ever had someone at home waiting for you.”
“Nope.” I shook my head. “I’ll probably never love anyone more than I love my job either.”
For the second time that night, he got me good, just blindsided me as he leaned over and kissed me. It wasn’t a friendly kiss, either, or a polite one; he had his mouth open against mine, and I could feel his tongue brush against my lips. Of course he was great at that; he was great at everything he did. But the kiss was electric, and my pulse raced to carry the shocks throughout my body, down to the places our bodies touched. He tasted dry and warm, like summer — strange for someone who’d grown up within spitting distance of Golovin Bay, but somehow just right. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, so loud it drowned out the engines. It was one hell of a kiss.
The transit gave a little jerk as it descended, shaking us both apart and back into our seats. I was glad for the nighttime darkness, because I was sure I was blushing over every inch of my body. “Um, what–” I licked my lips, though realizing that I could still taste him there didn’t make speaking any easier. “What was that for?”
“Your job loves you too,” Kayin said softly as the lights of the hospital helipad rose into view.
We had a physical blooper that would be running on every late-night show on the continent, there were still huge feats of therapy and recovery ahead of us, the debate had only scratched the surface of voter concerns regarding Kayin’s implants, polls still had us trailing by eight even with a sympathy bump, the election was five weeks away, and if I couldn’t pull this one out of the fire, I was staring down the end of the only career I’d ever wanted — but all of a sudden, the night didn’t seem half bad at all.
The hardest part about the leadup to the election was how many more people were around — so many, in fact, that the hospital just plain hadn’t been able to sustain the circus. At last, Dr. Bey had agreed to overlook the collapse at the debate if (and she’d set down these conditions while poking Kayin in the chest with a stylus) he agreed to stay on a constant data uplink feed, return in person once a week, and come back prepared for a longer stay at the first sign of trouble. He’d looked ready to sign a blood oath if that’d been what she’d needed before letting him go.
Of course, the hospital had been our last protective shell, and now that he was free of its routines, there was nothing to keep him from more mundane campaign obligations. Such was the reason he was now sitting in his living room across from GNN’s Andie Ybarra. The bright teal braids piled atop her head gave her the appearance of some mythical sea creature; she smiled at him, big and wide, and I hoped her next goal wasn’t to sing him to shipwreck.
Mauri and I hunkered in the alcove by the breakfast nook, out of the way of the flurry of network news camerabots. We hadn’t been able to convince Ybarra to let us see her questions beforehand, but we’d talked her into not broadcasting live, so I figured if everything started going south, I’d just grab a bottle of wine and run through the house screaming and smashing expensive equipment. It was a great plan.
“Fifty bucks says she doesn’t even get to policy,” Mauri muttered, rearranging blocks on a schedule grid in front of her.
I shook my head. “No bets.” We’d also tried to get someone fluffier out here for the interview — maybe Loes McNeill, who had a charmingly grandparentish countenance, or Oluwayemisi Orlov, who’d had a morning show for ten years before moving onto more ‘serious’ news — but Ybarra had apparently called shotgun with her bosses for this interview the day Kayin had gotten shot. It was vulturish, sure, but I couldn’t help being impressed. She’d sworn she’d ask a full range of questions, but when things like Kayin’s stances on crime and speeches about intercontinental commerce had been available on the network for years, there was really only one lead.
Thus, no one in the room was surprised when she took it. “I’m sure, Senator,” she began with a smile, once the setup had started recording, “that you know the questions on voter’s minds center around your being shot and your subsequent recovery. Can you give us an idea of what that’s been like?”
In a sense, Kayin was the luckiest politician on the planet at the moment — he could say ‘I don’t remember’ and mean it. As he told her what he could recall of the aftermath, though, bolstered by reports from other people who’d been at the shooting, I leaned over and looked at Mauri’s schedule. “So when do we sleep?” I whispered, pointing at Tuesday, which was filled with little colored blocks of events all the way through to midnight.
“We don’t,” she said, sliding in a little purple block labeled ‘Solar Supply Workers, Local 853’ between a pink block labeled ‘Fairbanks Campaign HQ’ and a red block labeled ‘Ivvavik Rally for Unity’.
“Has this changed your position on Yukon Separatism?” Ybarra asked, hands folded in her lap.
With a sad little smile, Kayin shook his head. “And I want to caution any political activists in the audience that shooting a politician is not a good way to get them to change their mind.”
The joke didn’t budge Ybarra’s practiced network smile, and if I’d been any closer, I would have found some way to signal to Kayin to watch out for what was coming next. “Then what has getting shot changed for you, Senator?”
And there it was, the narrowest of neutral openings, just blank enough to seem friendly. Believing that, though, was a fool’s game. These had always been the ones where Clio had shone, steering the conversation just the way she wanted it, never for a moment believing she’d found a sympathetic audience. But Kayin would be fine, because we’d known this was coming, and we’d discussed it. This was the part where he played up the wounded hero, keeping his upper lip stiff in the face of adversity, while voters found it all so admirable. He’d be great.
Thus I nearly grabbed that wine bottle when I saw him shrug and look down — self-conscious, not bold. “My positions are the same as they’ve ever been,” he said, and I felt my stomach turn to ice as I heard the mumble in the left side of his mouth become more pronounced. We’d talked about that and decided against it; the eyepatch was enough reminder of what he’d suffered, I’d argued, while Mauri had pointed out that voters associated slurred speech with drunkenness and infirmity, not boldly overcoming obstacles. If he kept his head up and his words measured, he’d be fine. He was doing neither. “I have every confidence in my ability to carry out my role as Governor of the North Atlantic States and Territories.”
Beside me, Mauri had stopped moving her hand mid-schedule, and now the green block of ‘Kachemak Bay Visitor Center Rededication’ hung anchorless as we both stared in horror. Sure, he was supposed to downplay the extent of his injuries, but not to the point of bypassing them entirely. No, you had to get a little of the poor-me story in there, or else no one would know how brave you were for shrugging it off. And we’d definitely been over that.
“I have to say, Senator,” Ybarra began, and even from here I could see the slight arch of her eyebrows, “that if I were one of your potential voters, knowing that you have a implanted neural hardware might give me pause before selecting your name on the ballot. Technology like this is still only questionably legal–”
“And,” said Kayin, pausing after interrupting her until she herself stopped, knowing better than to talk over her. Well, at least he’d remembered that. “And I still support strong regulations on its recreational use, as I always have. What the staff at Prudhoe General did for me was not about augmentation, though, but about compensating for severe damage and helping get me back my earlier quality of life.”
“Isn’t it true that most doctors still consider neural implants highly experimental, and some even refuse to use them?”
“And with good reason,” said Kayin, and he was lucky Mauri and I didn’t both just keel over right there. “They are invasive in the extreme, and it is a testament to the skill of the fine physicians at Prudhoe General that there have been no complications with mine.”
I knew even before Ybarra started speaking that when this interview finally ran, right there would be the clip of Kayin’s collapsing. Maybe the delay hadn’t been such a good idea after all. “So can you explain what happened at the Juneau debate?” she asked.
We’d told him she’d go there, but the slight widening of his good eye told me that he hadn’t really believed she would, not until right now. “I still have a great deal of physical therapy ahead of me,” he said, and I flinched; he needed to sound valiant, not weak, and he was coming across as just the opposite. “I have, in essence, had to re-learn to use one side of my body. From time to time, in moments of great stress, my control isn’t as reliable as it used to be.”
The worst part was, I knew he was just trying to be honest; despite everything we’d talked about neither oversharing nor underselling his difficulties, he just wanted to answer her question. The fact that he was failing at it just made it that much more painful. For the first time in months, I wished Clio had been there, to kick him in the balls during prep if for nothing else. “And should voters be worried that this tenuous control of your very experimental implant technology may have a negative effect on your ability to hold office?”
“I will pay you a hundred dollars to call her a racist right now,” Mauri muttered in my ear. “Just shout it out.” I stepped on Mauri’s foot and hoped that would keep her from doing it herself.
Kayin took a deep breath before answering. “Cybernetic rights are important, and I respect the wide range of viewpoints out there, and I do think it is possible to honestly disagree about something where we don’t have enough data to make a strong conclusion. However,” he continued before Ybarra could start her next question, or perhaps just repeat the first one, “I want to stress that my ability to reason has not been compromised, nor has my commitment to the North American people. While my body may pose challenges to my everyday life, those challenges are entirely physical. I wouldn’t still be running for office if I believed otherwise.”
Ybarra nodded. “Do you consider yourself post-human now?”
“That was a rather quick answer.”
“I felt it was a rather clear question,” said Kayin. “Post-human activists and I have not always seen eye to eye on legislation or approaches, but they and I both agree on respect for the individual, no matter how much or how little of one’s body is organic. However, post-human identity is about augmentation — which again, regardless of your thoughts on the matter, is not what happened to me.”
Though she drew her plum-painted lips tight, I could see that Ybarra had to concede the point. Still, political journalists didn’t let go that easily, not with something like this. “Do you think the voters should be worried about a candidate who can be hacked?”
I considered grabbing the bottle of wine, opening it, and taking a big swig just so I could do a spit-take. Kayin, bless him, didn’t even squirm. “I’d hope they’d prefer that to a candidate who can be bought,” he said with a cold little smile. I could practically see the crawl that would run at the bottom of the screen there, with links to information on years-old corruption charges that had missed Zegher but taken down most of his staff at the time. And just like that, we were back in the fight.
“Good, good,” said Dr. Bey through the screen; she was still back at Prudhoe, but we’d cleared out Kayin’s dining room and put up enough cameras that she could get a good picture of his progress without our having to make the trip back. I led him out in a slight spin, one which failed both for the differences in our heights and for Kayin’s less graceful footwork, but the effort was enough to make her applaud. “Cinder and Ella, the two dancing princesses.”
“And the latest polls show we’re only down by four,” I said, because I knew it would make her hit the ‘mute’ button on her end, and I grinned when the screen indicated that was exactly what she’d done.
“I’m sorry,” she said, because we could still hear her, “you’ll have to speak up, politics make me deaf.”
“She should really see someone about that,” I said to Kayin, and he laughed. I turned my most adorable expression toward her, though, and when she resumed the audio connection, I continued, “Is it okay if we show up Wednesday instead of Monday?”
Dr. Bey rolled her eyes. “Naturally I have nothing else to do but put my whole life on hold for you.” Of course, she smiled as she said it, and she shot Mauri a quick glance to boot. “Fine, fine, Wednesday. What’s happening Monday?”
“Oh, I’d tell you,” I said, “but I’m trying to be mindful of your politics allergy.”
She made a rude gesture toward the screen, which cracked us all up good and proper. “Senate’s got a vote on the Kodiak Referendum,” Mauri explained, “and since someone is still technically an office-holder, we thought he should make an appearance and, you know, vote against the people who shot him.”
“Can’t argue with that,” said Dr. Bey. “Here, put your hand up closer to the camera.” She didn’t need to specify who or which hand; Kayin lifted his left forearm by itself, showing her what he was able to do despite the tremendous effort it took to get it there, and splayed his fingers. “How’s your dexterity?”
“Still slow,” Kayin replied. He squeezed his fingers into a loose fist, then frowned with concentration as his index finger twitched, then stopped without rising. He let out all the air he’d been holding in a great sigh, shaking his head as he did.
Kayin shook his head again. “None.”
“Well, that’s good, at least.” Dr. Bey scribbled something down on a pad just outside her camera’s range. “I’ll think of other exercises, and we’ll plan out something the next time you’re here. Maybe piano, or knitting.”
“Played piano until I was twelve; knitted BJ a sweater last Christmas,” said Kayin with a sheepish shrug. It was true; I liked wearing it around the condo on chilly mornings.
Dr. Bey stuck out her tongue. “Then we’ll think of something else Prince Charming here hasn’t perfected already. Mar, you want to talk timing?”
“Sure,” said Mauri, grabbing the screen and excusing herself. None of the four of us had any illusions that appointment scheduling was going to be the sum total of their conversation, but that was all right. They were both bizarre, intense people who deserved one another. Plus, it was cute.
Left to our own devices, I put my hand back on Kayin’s waist, and presently we were engaged in a waltz. Truth be told, Dr. Bey had really oversold the need for my expertise; we hadn’t done any steps you couldn’t have taught an able-bodied beginner in five minutes. But I knew the context was important, and it did us all good to see how much this really did help. I felt his hand twitch against mine and realized he was pinching my thumb, or at least trying to; it was the pinching equivalent of being gummed by an infant. I managed not to laugh even though it did tickle a bit. “At least no one’s asking me to hold things on a national broadcast,” he said, squeezing again. “Are we really only down by four?”
“So sayeth the poll gods as of this morning,” I said, trying to lead him into a slightly quicker tempo. Rhythm wasn’t the most important part of this exercise, I knew, but it still pained my inner competitor to be that far off the beat.
He nodded and only stumbled a bit, bumping against me before sorting his steps out. The hospital had always been so cold, but Kayin kept the geothermal heat in his house at a much higher temperature, such that I’d gotten used to sleeping both on the couch in his study and with a window open. He’d offered me a proper guest bed, but I’d declined, saying that it if I got settled in one of those, I’d never go home again. Funny thing was, I still hadn’t been back to my place anyway. Even my artificial plants were probably dead, and I didn’t want to think about my fridge. After months of sleeping upright in hospital chairs, real beds just felt weird now.
Plus, I’d promised Dr. Bey I’d keep an eye on him, and I knew that if I broke my promise, she’d break my face. No wonder she was such a successful physical therapist.
The waltz spun down and another, slower one took its place, so I took my cue from the music and brought us both down a little. We’d been at it for almost an hour anyway, and I could tell from the tiny tremble in his arm that he was getting tired, even if he was too stubborn to ever admit when he’d had enough. “Hungry?” I asked, because that I could at least get him to own up to.
“Getting there,” he said, drawing himself a little closer to my chest, until his cheek came to rest against the side of my head and our hips brushed one another as we turned. We hadn’t spoken about what had happened on the night back to the hospital, and I didn’t even know if he’d been thinking about it, but I surely had, even if mostly in a strange sort of kissed-your-boss way. Six months ago, it would have been too weird for words, and pretty inappropriate to boot, but now … well, now I didn’t know. I didn’t know a lot of things. But I was damned if I wasn’t going to roll with them anyway.
For now, though, I knew how to dance, and I knew the tempo, and I knew how Kayin’s body felt against mine, and that was enough for the immediate future. I drew him into another long, slow step, and he followed right behind, matching me move for move, pulse for pulse, breath for breath.
They were our advertising team, and I knew I was supposed to like them on account of our all being on the same side, but damn if the six of them didn’t give me the creeps. They all looked different enough that I probably should have been able to remember their names, but their personalities were so interchangeable I’d never bothered and never had any problems with never bothering. The advertising director, on the other hand, was Mohana Darbinian, and I remembered him just fine. I’d once punched him in a parking lot and split his lip, though we’d both agreed in the aftermath, he’d had it coming. “In these last three weeks, push is important,” he said, twirling a sticker in his fingers; it was a shiny blue and the letters RASK floated an inch or so off its surface. “Push, branding, and personality.”
One of the ad-minions stood and rolled out a screen that showed three different poster designs, all with some subtle variant on the theme ‘unity’. When would-be secessionists shoot your guy in the head, run against them. If that wasn’t a famous political aphorism, it should have been. “All of these designs have polled well in different age groups,” the minion explained. “Do you have a preference for the final design, Senator Rask?”
Senator Rask emphatically did not, I knew, because Senator Rask hated political marketing and hated it extra when he was the subject of it. Nonetheless, Kayin accepted its necessity and embraced the enthusiasm of the people we hired to do it, even if he did so through gritted teeth. “The greener one,” he said, pointing to the one I would have described as ‘the bluer one’, but that’s why I wasn’t in charge of these decisions.
Darbinian nodded and that minion sat down while another, taller one stood. “We’ve arranged to have these appear in high-visibility areas,” Darbinian said, as the tall minion unrolled the design I’d been both anticipating and dreading. It had the usual text on it — Kayin Rask, for governor, elect — but it introduced two new features: the words ‘OVERCOMING OBSTACLES’ near the bottom, and a picture of Kayin’s post-shooting, eyepatched face at the top.
Kayin’s good eye went wide. He muttered something under his breath even as Darbinian continued, “With smaller versions, of course, to run in ad circulars and on transit passes. Now, I’ve spoken to Ms. Van Rompaij,” he said, nodding to Mauri, “about scheduling a time for you to come into the studio and record a last appeal, and I had the script sent to your–”
“No,” said Kayin softly, but the room went someone-farted-in-church quiet.
Darbinian pulled down his mirrored scarlet shades and peered over the top of their rims. “Senator, if there’s a change you’d like to make to the layout, I’m sure we–”
“You’re playing for sympathy,” he said, tapping his eyepatch on the poster. “I don’t want that.”
All the ad minions looked around one another, shifting nervously in their seats. “Senator,” Darbinian said, using his most patient schoolteacher voice, “the reality of what happened to you is not inconsequential. I would strongly advise against removing your image from the posters. You don’t want to give the impression that you have something to hide.”
Kayin’s good hand clenched hard on the edge of the table. “I don’t want to milk it either.”
“Look,” I said, putting a hand on Kayin’s shoulder and easing him back into his seat, “I discussed it with him–”
“You discussed–” Kayin began.
“And both of us,” I pushed on, “agreed this was the best middle ground between ignoring the elephant in the room and creating disability porn. Both of us agreed on something,” I emphasized, hoping the rarity of that would carry the appropriate weight.
Kayin looked at the poster again, shaking his head. “I don’t want that to be what sways people’s votes.”
“And why the hell not?”
“It’s superficial!” he said, slapping the table for emphasis. He was slurring badly now, to the point where I didn’t know how much the other people in the room could understand him. “It’s not me! It’s something that happened to me!”
Darbinian gestured for his whole team to keep their seats, then stood himself, looking at us from across the long steel table. “There are no policy changes left now. There are no surprises in your record. Right now, ninety-one percent of the people who are going to vote for you already know they’re going to vote for you, and an equivalent percentage of those who are going to vote against you already know they’re going to vote against you. The rest will make their choices based on one of two things: a personal decision regarding an agenda you’ve had set down for months, or something entirely superficial and, let me emphasize, entirely beyond your control. And I personally believe ‘persevered through a near-fatal wound’ is far less trivial than ‘has a handsome smile’.”
That handsome smile was nowhere to be seen now, as Kayin pushed his lips into thin lines of frustration. I confessed, I’d expected him to crack for months now, but I hadn’t thought this would be the straw that broke him. “Keep them for now,” I said in the silence that followed, “and we’ll send you the final word in a few. Fair?”
“Fair,” said Darbinian, who gestured for his people to leave the room and followed right behind them, giving me a nod as he shut the door. It was the first time I’d felt sorry for punching him.
Alone together in the room, Kayin and I sat at the table. His whole body was so tense he shook, and I wanted to touch him to show sympathy, but I feared it might come across as pity instead, so I kept my hands to myself. We sat there for nearly ten minutes in stone silence, with the only sounds the hum of the air-recycling system and Kayin’s forced, measured breaths.
At last, I pushed back from the table. He jumped at the sound of my chair, and when he turned to face me, I could see tracks of tears covering his right cheek. I’d seen him shed the occasional tear of pain or effort at the hospital, but this was the first time I’d seen him cry. “I hate sympathy votes,” he muttered, staring down at his hands.
“I know you do,” I said, “I know you do, I swear, I know you do — but you know what? In the final tally, you can’t tell any difference between them and the others.”
“Which will do wonders for my perception of legitimacy in office.” Kayin shook his head. “If I look like I got in on sympathy votes, I’ll look weak and never recover.”
“Okay,” I said, and my voice sounded as tired as I felt, “you know what? It is something that happened to you. Here are some things that didn’t just happen to you: You stayed in the race. You did what the doctors told you would make you better, and then you did more. You collapsed in front of millions of people and you got finished the debate strong anyway. You agreed to sit and let a reporter accuse you of being a robot, all the while not breaking her nose, which I would have strongly considered and possibly even advised. You see that,” I said, tapping the image of his eyepatch on the poster, “and you think, shit, I fell down. I see it and I think, wow, he got back up.”
Kayin snorted and scrubbed at his face. “Yes, yes, very inspiring.”
“No, fuck inspiring.” I grabbed the edge of the poster screen and began rolling it back up. “On November 4th, I am voting for a man so doggedly stubborn about what he believes that shooting him doesn’t change his convictions. That patch means you can’t be bullied, bought, or blackmailed. That’s nothing small.”
With a sigh, Kayin nodded, but I could see from the way his body was still drawn that he was agreeing only to placate me. “Okay,” I said, at last taking his hands — both his hands, grabbing them in mine, pressing them all together, “do you trust me?” I had no doubts; I just needed to hear him say it.
He looked from me to our joined hands and back to me. “I trust you.”
“Then trust me.” I squeezed his fingers tight between mine. “Trust that I want this. Trust — hell, trust that I’m in love with my job!” I brought his fingers up to my lips and kissed them, a spontaneous gesture of devotion, and I couldn’t have been happier when that startled him into a smile. “I am married to my job. I don’t cheat on my job. I would never want my job to do something I thought was not in its best interests. My job and I are very happy together. I am considering taking my job on a romantic second honeymoon to Skagway.”
Despite his earlier gloom, Kayin actually laughed at that. “Why Skagway?”
“I think you meant to ask, why not Skagway?” Still holding his hands, I sat on the edge of the table and scooted closer to him. “Okay, being serious now: Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And you can run from it or you can run on it, but you don’t get to ignore it, and you don’t get to pretend like everyone else might forget if you just focus on tariffs or mineral rights or something else equally mind-numbing. Only five people in the history of anything have ever cast a vote because of mineral rights. And I bet they were all incredibly boring people anyway.”
Kayin nodded, considering this, the weight of it all clear on his face. At last, he sighed and looked me in the eye, and I saw a little twinkle in his. “‘Bullied, bought, or blackmailed’? Did you just think of that right now? Off the top of your head?”
“I … may have been holding that in reserve until the proper moment.”
“Canned motivation. Very stirring. You’re fired.”
“Can’t fire me, I’m paid up through the end of the month.” I gave his hands one last squeeze before letting go and hopping off the table. “Take it up with payroll!” I sang as I skipped toward the door, grabbing my phone as I did to call Darbinian and tell him the ads would go on.
It was my bladder that woke me, but the music from behind the half-open door was what caught my attention. Still, the bladder thing was important, so I shuffled down to the bathroom at the end of the hall before wandering my sleepy way back. My first thought was that I was somehow responsible, that I’d left the music on from earlier or mis-set an alarm to have to start playing. When I pulled the door open, though, I saw Kayin standing there, wearing only loose pants and holding his arms as though he had a partner on the other side — a somewhat diminutive partner, in fact.
The mirrored wall showed him my entrance, and there was no pretending either of us hadn’t seen the other. “BJ,” he said, letting his arms drop. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t wa–” The sentence was swallowed by a yawn, and I had to wait until it was done. Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the interim, I raked my fingers through my wispy black hair, trying to comb it into some semblance of order. I was wearing baggy boxers and a faded ARMY t-shirt, though, so I wasn’t exactly going to look presentable no matter what I did with it. “You didn’t wake me. I was up already.”
“I was just,” Kayin begin, even though it was obvious what he’d been doing.
I tutted my finger at him. “You overexert yourself and Dr. Bey will have both our heads.” Instead of further dissuading him, though, I walked over and fit myself against his form, holding him steady in position. The lights were low, making the glow from his implants even brighter. It was strange to think how I’d once found his blank eye and his damaged skull so unsettling; by now, they were just another part of Kayin, no stranger than the buttons on his shirt or the soft hair on his chest.
I figured on any given day, half my thoughts were in one way or another about Kayin. Since the kiss, however, they’d taken a turn they never had before, into the realm of not only noticing as an abstract fact how handsome he was, but contemplating what it would be like to get my hands on that handsomeness. It wasn’t even that I worried how wanting that might be professionally inappropriate — though make no mistake, that was definitely a concern. But I was caught somewhere between getting flustered when I thought about kissing him, being on his payroll, and having seen nurse droids change his catheter, and I was finding my position very difficult to triangulate.
This position, though, this was much easier. “One-two-three, one-two-three,” I said quietly, marking the clear rhythm of the Viennese waltz coming through the sound system before I eased him into it. I was tired and he was tired, and the pace we hit was nowhere near the actual beat, but it felt good to move, and to have him move against me.
“Some days I can’t believe how well this works,” Kayin said with a laugh. He brought his face to rest against the side of my head, until his lips just brushed my temple as he spoke.
“Only some?” My bare feet stuttered across waxed wood floors instead of gliding across them, and more than once I felt Kayin’s toes kick mine through no fault of his own, for once. “I guess that quack knows what she’s talking about.” His chest was damp with sweat; there was no telling how long he’d been awake and practicing before I’d gotten there, and surely he’d never admit to the duration himself.
“She must.” Kayin flexed his left hand where I held it in my right one, and I could feel how jerky the movement was. “If only there were ballroom dances for hands.”
For what happened next, I could blame nothing but my sleepy brain, since if I’d been even slightly more awake, I would have had the good sense to stop myself before I even started speaking. “Well, do you jerk off right-handed?”
Startled into a laugh, Kayin stumbled and righted himself far enough away that even in the low light, I could see a deep pinkness begin to tint his cheeks. “I’m sorry, what?”
“You know, hand exercises.” I’d put my foot in my mouth already, so where was the harm in shoving it in deeper? “Because if you know how to already right-handed, but not left-handed, then you … could, you know. Learn.”
Kayin cleared his throat. “No, ah, I’m — historically, I’ve been somewhat ambidextrous about that.”
“Oh,” I said, starting the waltz again. “Well, it was a thought.”
We swayed like that again for almost a minute, keeping up an approximation of the three-beat step, until Kayin stilled his feet; he stayed close to me, though, close enough that I couldn’t see his face as he said, “I’ve never given a left-handed handjob before, though.”
Well, that was a horse of an entirely different spectrum. Before I could even process the whole length and breadth of that statement, though, my cock decided to volunteer, eagerly nudging its way upward toward the gap at the front of my boxers. I would have laughed it off had that sensation not prompted a little gasp from Kayin, who leaned forward and pressed his erection against my hip. Well, this had not been how I’d expected my midnight excursion to go. If I’d known, I would definitely have combed my hair in the bathroom.
“Are, uh.” I cleared my throat, wondering how to best to phrase this. “Are you looking for a volunteer?”
“A volunteer? No, no.” Even as Kayin shook his head, though, he drew closer, pressing our bodies together. “No, this would be part of my physical therapy. I couldn’t demand something that important of a person and have it not be part of, say, their job description.”
My sleepy smile broadened into an all-out grin. “Oh, a job. Yes, you’re absolutely right, keep everything above board.”
His hand that had been resting on my shoulder rose to tuck a lock of my hair behind my ear, a simple gesture that might as well have been made of lightning for the way the touch coursed through the rest of my body. “But I’d have to find someone who really loves his job.”
“Oh, I couldn’t trust anyone else with that assignment,” I murmured, hoping I sounded sexy and not just groggy. The waltz forgotten, I just held him close and waited for him to take the lead on what was going to happen next. He was my boss, after all; it was only proper.
Kayin gave me one last look, a questioning gaze as if to make sure this really was all right, and when I nodded back, he leaned in and kissed me. Standing right there in what had become our makeshift dance floor, half-dressed and half-awake at three in the morning, we had our second kiss — professionally, of course; this was official campaign business. So he very professionally stuck his tongue in my mouth, and I quite professionally whimpered as I rubbed my cock against his thigh, and I could have checked off every ‘exceeded expectations’ box on the evaluation form. If I ever left him, I could get the best letter of recommendation ever.
But I didn’t want to leave him. After these last few months, I think it had become clear to both of us that I was going to stay until the wheels fell off, especially in light of how said wheels had damn near fallen off already. I’d never been in love before, and I didn’t know if I was now, but I knew for certain liked him — both as a politician and as a friend. And I really, really wanted to come in his hand. So we were all set.
“Um, maybe,” I said after a minute, my lips brushing his as we spoke. “Maybe, we, um. Maybe … sitting?”
“Sitting, right.” Kayin nodded, and I was pleased to see that he was as flushed and out of breath as I was. Maybe it was part of the nature that made me such a good second banana to men like Kayin, but there was no better way to turn me on than for me to get someone else going. “Sitting is good. Sitting is … where?”
“Couch.” I took his hand in mine and led him out of the room, across the hall, and into the study where I’d set up camp. I had suitcases open and dry cleaning hanging from shelves, but my housekeeping failures were far from primary concerns at the moment. Said couch had two down pillows and three blankets strewn across it, and I sat us down on top of them all, eager to get back to kissing. He took my face in his hands and pressed our lips together, and it would have been so easy just to stay like that for the rest of the night, and maybe for the rest of my life, depending. I had nowhere better to be.
But no, I remembered, I did have a job to do. Making sure he was settled, I stood again and took a deep, steadying breath, praying I wasn’t about to make an idiot of myself. Before I could let my worries change my mind, though, I pulled my shirt over my head and dropped my boxers from around my waist, letting them join the carpet of dirty clothes I was cultivating in here. When Kayin didn’t laugh at my twiggy frame or perfectly polite-sized penis, I nodded and sat back down next to him, this time on his left side. “Okay,” I said, nodding. I leaned back so that my cock stuck out at an angle conducive to maximum grabability. I was sure that the ancient and noble science of grabability studies would back me up on that one. “Let’s do some exercises.”
From the get-go, I could see that his hesitation wasn’t reluctance. His arousal began to color with telltale signs of exertion as he lifted his left arm and brought it to rest on my bare thigh, a process that took several seconds of obvious conscious thought. When he connected, though, my cock twitched at the touch, which made us both smile. “So, um,” I said, “do you need any instructions, or do you have this?”
With a smile, Kayin shrugged. “I could probably figure it out on my own, but … a little refresher might be nice.”
I had never talked dirty a day in my life, but if he could overcome the difficulties in his mental circuitry to give me a handjob, I could be brave too. “You should maybe start by, uh, making your hand into a tube? Sort of?”
Slowly, he moved his thumb to rest against the tips of his third and fourth fingers. “Like that?” he asked, lifting it so I could see.
“Just like that.” I kept my hands at my sides, despite how much my cock really wanted me just to grab his hand and shove it on there. “And then you can just … put it around and see what happens.”
Kayin had to reach over and grab his left elbow with his right hand to complete the gesture, but I wasn’t Dr. Bey and now was not the time for chiding him for cheating. He’d squeezed his hand a little too tight in the process of moving it, and now he had to expand his grip as he pushed his fist down over my erection, every inch now slick with my precome. It had been ages since I’d been laid, and even then my partners had been more recklessly fast than maddeningly slow. My hands became talons, grabbing the blankets. “And then, ah.” I swallowed hard. “And then you can move it back up again.”
“Got it,” Kayin said, and he kissed my shoulder. It was an odd position we’d found ourselves in, and his elbow bumped my chest every time we moved, and oh, did I ever not give a shit. “It’s nice to see a young man so dedicated to his work.”
Despite my near-consuming arousal, that cracked me up. “Oh no, do not make me laugh, I’ll go soft,” I said, even though the odds were probably greater at the moment that we’d be struck by lightning.
“That kind of dedication is important, too,” Kayin said, only now his voice was softer, and while the good cheer was still present, the joking was over. “I bet your boss doesn’t know what he’d do without you.”
“I’m sure–” I lost my sentence in a gasp as he squeezed the root of my cock before starting back up the shaft. “I’m sure he would’ve thought of something.”
Kayin kissed my neck, then leaned his head against my shoulder as he continued to stroke me. “I don’t know. And I’m sure he wants you to know how much he appreciates you, but doesn’t always know how. I’ll bet a guy like him is good at thanking people professionally, but not so good personally.”
I turned to press a kiss into his hair — then stopped short, realizing that where my lips would have landed, there was metal, not skin. After a moment of consideration, though, I kissed it anyway, smiling as I felt the connections hum beneath its surface. It really was as much a part of Kayin now as his organic bits were — hadn’t that been Dr. Bey’s entire point? — and to treat it otherwise seemed unfair at best and counterproductive at worst. And this was therapy, after all. Maybe even for both of us.
“He’ll never be able to express how glad he is you were dumb enough to stay,” Kayin said softly, so I drew my arm around his shoulder and pulled him close, rubbing circles against his back.
“I already know,” I told him. “I’m not dumb enough to miss that.”
At first I attributed his slowness to nothing more than his difficulty coordinating intention with action, but it wasn’t long before I realized his pace was deliberate. Of course he was good at this; he was stupidly good at everything. I wanted to punch him in the face, but I settled for biting my lip as he drew his fingers long and slow up my cock. His short fingernails skimmed across my skin and I could have forgotten we were doing this for therapy; I could have forgotten my name if he’d kept it up much longer.
“Let me see,” he said, just under his breath, and that was all it took. I grabbed the couch cushions so hard I damn near left holes and came all over his hand, shooting come into the air like I hadn’t gotten laid since college. Funny, that.
I wanted to say something to him, to tell him how much this meant to me, how much it all meant to me, but instead I grabbed the back of his head and pressed his mouth to mine in a bruising kiss. I wanted to let him know that I understood, and even more, that I understood that he understood, and that I didn’t know how to deal with being seen right through like that. So instead I slipped off the couch, shoved down his pants, and took his dick back into my throat in one swift swallow.
He made some noise that might have been words, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying, so I accepted the overall sentiment as being positive and just kept going. I sucked him hard and fast, as though I were afraid that if I let up for even a moment, he might tell me to stop — and maybe I was afraid of exactly that. There were so many uncertain boundaries here, so much left to negotiate. And I didn’t want to negotiate. I wanted to taste his come.
First his right hand came up and grabbed at my hair, and then his left hand joined it, and I was beyond thrilled to realize that he wasn’t pulling me away, he was pushing me down. I might have been out of practice, sure, but I hadn’t magically grown a gag reflex in the nearly five years since I’d sucked dick, and as such I had no problem getting even his fair-sized cock all in. He tasted good, all clean and bright, but still with salt and sexy dirtiness underneath; he tasted the way he smelled when we danced, warm and sweaty and at my beck and call. I barely lifted my head long enough to take a breath before I went back down, trying to show him all the things I wasn’t sure I wanted to say, hoping it would be enough.
It was enough to get him off, at least. He started making a sound, so I sealed my lips around the root of his cock and just swallowed, and swallowed, and swallowed again as he shot his load down my throat. My only sadness was that he’d hadn’t been able to hold out long enough to let me suck him straight through to tomorrow morning. Maybe we could work on fucking my mouth for his next therapy session. It sounded like a perfect plan to me.
At last, I heard him whimper as I sucked too hard on too-sensitive skin, so I let go and flopped back onto the floor, landing hard on my butt. I was naked and come-splattered, and I knew my chin was a spitty, slick mess, and I felt like I’d just won the lottery as I looked up and saw Kayin there, boneless against the couch, eyes closed, mouth open. I lifted my hands and framed him in a rectangle with my fingers. “There. That’s your campaign poster.”
He very slowly and deliberately lifted his left hand, then reached over with his right to hold down his fingers so he could extend just his middle one. I appreciated that he thought I was worth the effort. “Fuck you.”
“Do you want to?” I said, spreading my knees, letting him see what he might be getting into.
Kayin looked down and me and smiled, and I saw his cock twitch. “Yes, but for the love of God, not tonight. I have a network television appearance in the morning.”
“What, you think the voters don’t want to see that?” I smirked and scooted a little closer, then kissed his knee. He had cute knees, and I’d never known that was the kind of thing a person could have, but it was true. “You could usher in an whole new era of electoral honesty. ‘I’m sorry, Joanie, but if I seem a little distracted, it’s because I’m thinking of how I had my cock buried in my assistant all night.’ Might be a game-changer.”
“With certain demographics, maybe,” Kayin said, and then he reached down to touch my cheek. “That’s a ‘not now’, though. Not a ‘no’.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” I said, winking at him. “So, did I live up to my nickname?”
A puzzled frown weighed down his features. “Nickname?”
“You know.” I poked him in the thigh. “Your stupid nickname for me.” My eyes widened as I saw him stare at me with a look of honest confusion. “BJ.”
It was his eyes’ turn to widen. “I … I swear I never even thought of–”
I swatted at his leg. “Okay, so you’re an idiot, not an asshole. Not much better, for the record.” I laughed as I stood and extended my hand, helping him up from the couch. “Come on, you’re sitting on my bed.”
He stood and put a hand on the small of my back. “Would you consider sitting on mine?”
“Network television tomorrow, remember?” I stuck out my tongue.
“Maybe a new era of electoral honesty is long overdue,” he said, and as he kissed me again, I found myself thinking on how the morning shows really could use a debauched gubernatorial candidate in their lineups. The North American public deserved only the best.
“Where is he?” I wasn’t going to kill him, not on election day, but I was considering what an appropriate amount of maiming might be.
Mauri shook her head, eyes fixed on the screen in front of her, where a security-cleared list of names told us who was waiting on the other side of the heavy curtain; one column counted supporters, the other listed press. The eastern polls had already opened, and in seventeen minutes, the ones in our time zone would go online. This was a fine fucking time to lose the candidate.
I was about to start rallying a search party when Kayin breezed in to the darkened backstage area. “I’m here,” he said with a little wave in our direction, not even pausing as he pushed ahead through the curtains and onto the stage beyond. It took all of ten seconds for him to enter, cross by us, and walk on, which was a shame, because it took eleven seconds for my brain to put two and two together and get don’t let him go out there like that! as its sum. And here I’d always been the fastest kid in my middle-school math classes.
The crowd broke into a rousing cheer as they saw him stride in, his walk purposeful, only a ghost of his former limp slowing him down — but seconds later the sound stopped as suddenly as if someone had thrown a heavy blanket over all five hundred people in attendance. Mauri stepped up behind me and grabbed my hand, and I held hers tight enough I knew someone was losing some circulation. I thought about running out there and throwing myself bodily at him, tackling him and making some sort of wacky joke, but it was far too late for that; he’d taken the podium and begun to speak.
“I want to thank you all,” began Senator Kayin Rask, who had in his infinite wisdom and good judgment decided that the way to rally his supporters both here and at home was to walk out on election day without his eyepatch or his hairpiece. Mauri and I were standing on his far right, but monitors all around us made it clear that everyone else was getting an eyeful of all the metalwork. A few aerial cameras even zoomed over to get up close and personal with the machinery that patched Kayin’s skull, and he didn’t shoo them away. “This campaign hasn’t been easy, not for any of us. And I’ve been trying to pretend it’s been no harder on me than on anyone else. But–” He took a deep breath and lifted his hands to the podium. “I haven’t been honest with anyone about what’s changed, least of all with myself.”
“Did he run this by you first?” Mauri whispered in my ear, and I shook my head, eyes wide. I had to have faith that this was Kayin being a genius, because if it wasn’t, he was holding a shotgun and it was aimed at all our feet.
Gripping the podium with his right hand, Kayin raised his left and flexed his fingers with measured, pained slowness, a look of fierce concentration in his eyes. At last, he exhaled and let both hands come to rest by the microphone base. “That was very difficult,” he said. “Walking has been difficult, and you’ll see I still don’t have it quite back where I used to. Talking — just making both sides of my face match — has been maybe the worst. And the most embarrassing. I kept quiet for so long afterward partly because I was scared of what I heard every time I opened my mouth.”
There was a low shuffling sound as people in the audience shifted their weight, adjusted their cameras; I didn’t hear a single voice that wasn’t Kayin’s, though. He could have stepped away from the mic entirely, and while it would have pissed off the press, everyone in the hall would have heard him clear as day. “I didn’t want the posters to have pictures of me with the eyepatch,” he continued, his voice steady and strong, “and I said it was because I didn’t want to play for sympathy — and that’s true, I don’t. But it’s also because … that’s not who I wanted to be. I still wanted to be the man I was before I was shot. And I’m not.”
That admission brought up a murmur of voices, but Kayin raised his hand and they quieted again. “Tragedies — large, small, global, personal — force us to re-evaluate our priorities. Your house is burning down and you can only save three items — what are they? Now ask someone who lives in that same house, and their answer might be different. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong, or that they’re a bad person for not valuing what you do. It means we all have different needs and that crisis makes those needs clear.
“When you’re in politics, it becomes easy to run for office just because running for office is what you do. People asked me why I wanted to run for governor, and I never admitted — to them or to myself — how much of it was because that just seemed like the next logical step. Representative, mayor, senator, governor, right up the food chain.”
Mauri’s knobby hand crushed against mine, and the pain reminded me that I needed to breathe. It wasn’t easy, though, as my chest felt as though it had been tossed outside and frozen in the icy November air, even as sweat poured down the sides of my face. Kayin had no notes in front of him, and he was good with rote memorization, but not this good; this was from the heart.
“So I woke up in the hospital, and my — Singh Byung-joon, and I’d say he’s my right hand, except I’ve really needed a left one of late–” Kayin gestured in my direction, and a brief spotlight rose on me, though I didn’t imagine a single person spared me even a glance, not when Kayin was still speaking. “He will vouch for this, that the first thing I wanted to do was keep this campaign going. I had an out, I had the perfect excuse for breaking out of the perfunctory election cycle, and as soon as I came to surrounded by machines in a hospital, I knew I could have made a graceful exit and no one would have thought ill of me for it. But it never even seemed tempting. My house was on fire, and all three things I wanted to grab were this, right here, today.
“I pledge to meet with the Yukon Separatists and to address their concerns,” said Kayin, looking straight into the camera now. “But what I want to do as governor is something I couldn’t do in Parliament, and that is keep this house together. This is the biggest and the wildest of all the districts, and we’ve got more than enough room in it for different ways of life. I don’t want violence to be a solution; I don’t even want it to be a necessary thought. And that’s why I don’t want to hide what violence does.” He gestured to his face, then turned his head so everyone could see the interior workings his hairpiece would otherwise have covered. “This is not a mark of heroism. This is a sad reminder of what happens when people become so desperate that they see only one course of action. I’ve learned what it is to encounter that violence, and yes, there have been times when it has made me afraid. Therefore, I want us all to work together so no one has to live in fear anymore.
“So no,” Kayin said at last, his voice trembling at the edges with emotion, “I’m not the man I was before I was shot. I’d like to think I’m better. And I’d like to think that if you agree, you’ll consider giving me your vote today. Thank you.”
There was applause that followed, and music, and photographs, and hand-shaking, and endless reception lines, and press, and calls to supporters, and last-minute fires to put out, and polls to read, and questions to answer, and results to watch. All that was waiting, and it all happened on that November Tuesday, just as similar things had happened hundreds of November Tuesdays before. If you ask me now, I can even recall some of it, here and there. But the truth is, the only thing I really remember from that bright, cold election day was the way Kayin looked as he finished his speech and turned to me. I wanted to kiss him and choke him to death all at once, so when he gave me a thumbs-up, I settled for shooting him one in return. He’d be the death of me, I thought then, but what a way to go.
The inauguration was held on a day so cold, I’d spilled a cup of coffee walking to the transport and the contents had shattered by the time they hit the walkway. Even Kayin, who prided himself on his ability to endure arctic temperatures, had pulled out his heaviest coat and closed its fur-lined hood around his face. It was a day not fit for man nor beast, as the saying went, but we were neither; we were politicians.
I let Kayin go as soon as we walked from the chamber where he’d taken his oath to the room the ball was being held, giving him a steadying pat on his back before releasing him to the hundreds upon hundreds of people who wanted a minute of their new governor’s time. That was his time to shine, not mine. I grabbed a canape from the tray of a passing waiter and slunk off into the crowd. There were plenty of volunteers and campaign staff there, and I knew I needed to thank them all, which is why I tried to take cover and space out my thank-yous to a manageable frequency.
Even so, all the light and chatter and hundreds of bodies became a bit wearying, so after an hour or so of keeping up appearances, I slipped out the side and up a fire staircase to the fifth floor, where I figured that at least the bathrooms in the governor’s suite of offices would be unoccupied. There were few places a man could still reasonably expect not to be bothered, and that was one I counted on. I’d already been cleared for the locks, but as soon as I got there, I found the door ajar and the light on. Figuring that security would have been called already if this hadn’t been authorized, I pulled the door the rest of the way wide, expecting to find some janitorial bot inside.
Instead, I saw a very familiar frame placing flowers on what had become, as of two hours ago, Kayin’s desk. She straightened and tucked back a strand of her straw-yellow hair. “Hello, Byung-joon,” said Clio.
“I wasn’t sure if you were going to make it,” I said, shutting the door behind us. “I know they cancelled a lot of the transports from down south.”
“I guess I had luck on my side.” She smiled as she arranged the springs of cut orange blossoms. “For once.”
I would’ve said no one had been more surprised than Kayin when I’d suggested we take Clio back, except from what he told me of the conversation that followed, she beat him there. It wasn’t her fault that Zegher’s involvement with North Atlantic arms dealers had come to light less that three weeks before the election, nor was it her fault that it had only come to light less than three weeks before the election; Zegher had buried the trail so deep that only a two-year undercover INTERPOL investigation had been able to dig it up. When the media had gotten ahold of that, Clio had been left watching her campaign slide from a sure thing to dead last.
Maybe some people figured I was gloating a little by bringing her back, and maybe I was a little; I’m no angel and I’ve never claimed to be. But I also knew good when I saw good, and Clio was better than good — she was great. And as bravely as Mauri had soldiered on in the face of insurmountable odds, even she agreed that a seated governor needed a press secretary with a lot more meat on the proverbial bone.
It was what Kayin had said, too, about burning houses. She’d grabbed what she’d thought was important, and there was no shame in that. Besides, it’d be good to have someone around who wasn’t afraid to do the smart thing and save her own skin. That kind of perspective could come in handy. Stupidly loyal, Kayin already had, and in abundance.
At last happy with the arrangement of the southern vegetation she’d brought to our long arctic night, she walked over and extended her hand. I took it in mine, giving it a firm shake. “Good to have you back,” I said, and I was surprised to find just how much I meant every word.
“Good to be back,” she said, and I could tell she was equally sincere.
When we arrived back at the festivities, arm in arm, the band was already in full swing, filling the chilly night air with warm brassy tones. Mauri rushed over and kissed us both drunkenly in greeting, leaving both Clio and me with bright lilac smudges on either side of our faces. We introduced Clio to Dr. Bey, who was bright and polite to Clio’s face, but shot me a look behind Clio’s back that told me she’d be keeping an eye on that situation. I wondered how much of the story she’d gotten from Mauri, but decided to leave it be for now. Now was time to celebrate.
A server came by with a tray stacked with champagne, and we each took a flute, clinking their rims together before partaking. A parade of local dignitaries in their black-tie best passed in front of us, greeting and congratulating one another, barely giving the four of us a moment’s pause. It was all right, though; I found the shadows most comfortable.
So of course, the crowd then parted to reveal Kayin, who brought the spotlight with him. With a dark, formal suit and his hair slicked back from his face, turning that million-dollar grin on the world, he was handsome enough to make glaciers swoon. He hugged both Mauri and Dr. Bey, then shook Clio’s hand amicably before turning to me. “May I have this dance, Chief of Staff Singh?” he asked, holding out his left elbow.
The band had become so much background noise, like everything else, that I hadn’t even noticed that they’d moved into a slow, jazzy swing. It wasn’t true that every eye in the place was on me, but a lot of them sure were, and since the floor was paneled with very solid oak and therefore unlikely to give way and swallow me whole, my options were limited. “Of course, Governor Rask,” I replied, rolling my eyes even as I tucked my hand in the crook of his arm. He was impossible, but fortunately for us both, I liked that about him.
I expected some sweeping gesture as he took the lead, some display of power to everyone in the room, but instead he put his right hand on my shoulder and stepped close as I brought my fingers to rest against the small of his back. Even so, he was the one who took the first step, shifting his weight back and pulling me with him into the dance.
There were two more things I could remember from that election night. The first was the way it felt like being hit in the face with a board, only in a good way, when the eastern polls closed — the ones from some of Zegher’s strongest districts, including his home city — and we were two points ahead already. The second was the way Kayin had swept me into his arms and kissed me hard when the GNN newsroom had called the race unquestionably his, with a projected two-thirds of the electorate having cast their ballots his way. It was the biggest upset of the long autumn night, and it was light-years away from an intensive care room north of the Arctic Circle.
“Quite a night,” I said, glancing around as we swayed aimlessly among the other pairs. He had gained back to his earlier fluid walk, and he was definitely getting better with his hands, but somehow, his ballroom skills didn’t seem to have improved much over the previous two months. During his last checkup, Dr. Bey had just shaken her head, mystified, commenting that it was almost as though he was spending his dancing practices doing some other physical activity entirely. Kayin and I, of course, had no idea what she was talking about. None at all.
Kayin nodded, though his eyes didn’t leave me. “Quite a night,” he agreed. “Not bad for a guy with a hole in his head, huh?”
That caught me in a laugh, and I knew the cameras would love that shot; some of the more content-desperate news outlets might go to press with it on a gossip page, but it would be the least interesting item run on the Cyborg Senator, or the Governor with the Clockwork Brain, or the Polymer Politician, or whatever stupid thing they were calling him these days. “Well, we all have holes in our heads; what matters is how you use them.”
“See? Insight like that is why I pay you the big bucks.” In fact, we’d worked it out so I’d actually be making less working on the governor’s payroll than I had before, but it evened out well, considering I wasn’t paying rent on a condo anymore. Funny how little job perks like that worked themselves out.
“You pay me because no one else can put up with what a crappy dancer you are,” I said, and I couldn’t tell whether the stomp on my foot that followed was an accident or purposeful.
“Is that why? I’ll be sure to put that on your next performance evaluation.”
I feigned nervousness. “Oh, I hope I get a good review.”
Kayin smiled and bent down so our foreheads touched, and I closed my eyes, breathing in the moment, breathing in the scent of his skin. It was almost dreamlike, all of this, and it might have been more so if every muscle in my body didn’t remember the months of stress and sleeplessness and hard work it had taken to get here. “There are a few things you might do to raise your score,” he teased, squeezing my hand.
“Oh,” I sighed with great theatrical resignation, “the things we do for love.”
The band finished its song with a flourish, and we let go of one another to applaud. The crowd descended on him again, drawing him away for another photograph or handshake or introduction, and he shot me a wink before he was gone, carried off into a sea of his new adoring constituents. The things we did for love, indeed.
Smiling, I snuck off the dance floor and back into the shadows, back to where I’d left the ladies minutes ago. I had no illusions that any of this was going to be easy — figuring out how to govern an entire region, coming to trust Clio again, negotiating where professional ended and personal began — but nothing else had been so far, and I saw no reason to change my approach now. There was always something new to learn.