Alive or Dead

by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)


You couldn’t tell the latest generation of automata from human beings. That was common knowledge, so common in fact it was on the books as law in some countries. No disclosure required, and in any case, terribly rude to ask. You still found many of them working in the arts, hitting perfect-pitched notes and playing instruments with virtuosity, but the telltale markers of thirty or forty years ago were long gone. Your girlfriend with the perfect body and the strange light eyes was just as likely to have paid to have those features added to her flesh and blood body as she was to have had them built into her by equally mechanical hands. What was the point of trying to tell, anyway? It didn’t matter anymore.

Saif didn’t need to ask, though; he always knew. Even after all this time. He rested his forearms on the edge of the opera box and leaned forward, closing his eyes and tilting his head down over all the space between him and the orchestra below. The lead soprano, with her spirals of burnt honey hair and simply spectacular breasts, she was entirely human; the baritone singing opposite her, however, belting out profound notes from deep within his mighty beard, he was wires and circuits beneath his skin. Saif could keep himself occupied with this game for the entirety of the performance; he honestly found it a more interesting diversion than opera itself. But rituals were rituals and promises were promises. Even though his date was late, and more than just in his usual fashionable manner.

The violin section, all human. The lovely young fellow with the soft lips behind the buzuq, an automaton. Never the first show of the season, they’d agreed (or rather, Saif had been convinced). There was too much fuss and pomp going about, too many people striving to be seen. The bronze-skinned girl in the dancing chorus had legs that could be unnaturally long, but Saif knew the stretch of real muscle when he saw it. The fourth show was the ideal to set a date upon; the performers were relaxed, the patrons devoted and focused, and well, to be honest, the reservation on the box was easier to come by. That had been more than twenty years ago, though; the reservation was fairly set in stone by now. Well, more literally set in an embossed brass plaque bearing the name Saifullah ibn Malik ibn Abd-al-Khafid al-Hallaqinee, after the substantial donation he’d made to the theater for the preservation of the arts. The box was theirs for any performance. But the fourth was the one he waited for.

By his watch the first intermission would be coming up soon. He hadn’t much been following the plot, but he could tell things were coming to a head, drums pounding, notes soaring, a table with all its stage-unbreakable glasses knocked onto the floor. A large contralto, someone’s mother, Saif thought she was, came barrelling onto the stage to growl vibrato threats at the bearded baritone, and that was interesting, she was an automaton herself. You never used to see very fat ones, until they started manufacturing themselves.

Saif was so caught up in watching the performance, listening to the two low-toned mechanical voices swirl around him, that he startled hard when hands came around his eyes, long, dark fingers blocking out his vision. There was a thick scar on the left index that rubbed into his brow. He let out a sigh. “You are far too old to still sneak up on me like a cat.”

“I simply have good timing,” Teferi said, and let his hands drop to Saif’s shoulders, brushing thumbs along the side of his neck. Saif had not been a young man for a very long time, but a single feel of Teferi’s fingerprints against his skin was enough to put the heart of a man forty years younger in his chest for a while. “I’m familiar with this opera. I waited for a crescendo and crept my way in.”

Teferi moved to take the seat beside him on the long sofa the box had been fitted with, trailing a hand along the thick coil of Saif’s hair, which was more silver than black these days. “Ah,” Saif said, when he saw Teferi’s face for the first time in a year. “You have hair now!”

“Did you think I’d gone actually bald?” he said, and laughed. Saif had never seen one hair on his scalp in all the decades they’d known each other, but now Teferi had a head of short black coils, scattered through with silver of their own. He reached to touch, feeling over soft curls to find another scar he knew well, the thickest across his skull, an old memory of an older crash. Teferi sighed and tipped his head down, letting Saif feel him out with his fingertips. “It is real, I assure you.”

“I didn’t think it wasn’t!” Saif said, and now just touched him for the pleasure of it. Teferi turned his head a little to nuzzle his lips to Saif’s wrist. “It’s just different.” He cupped his palm to Teferi’s cheek, which was as beardless as ever, not a hint of stubble. “I like it.”

“I’m glad you do,” Teferi said, as he kissed the base of Saif’s palm. “It was not so much a deliberate aesthetic choice as a necessary one.” He kept his eyes closed and his mouth entertaining a trail along Saif’s hand, but he released his grip slightly on his wrist. Then, Saif could feel the tremor in the space between Teferi’s skin, a faint palsy that kept those long fingers, those clever fingers unstill. He held his breath for a moment, and then let out a small laugh.

“What, don’t you have an assortment of lithe young attendants who could do it for you?”

Teferi laughed and grinned, the bright smile in his dark face half-hidden by Saif’s palm. The sparkle in his eyes had not dimmed at all, at least. “Come now, I’m a man with enemies. You think it’s wise for me to lie back and let a pretty thing with a razor have at me?”

Saif shrugged. “Well, I’d do it for you.” He brushed his thumb over Teferi’s lower lip to feel him smile. “We haven’t been enemies in… oh, a while, isn’t it?”

Teferi’s eyes closed and he took the tip of Saif’s thumb between his lips, barely touching it with his tongue. Saif gasped loud enough at the heat of it that he only then realized that the performance had gone to intermission, and that the house lights had been raised. “Come now, we were never really enemies,” he said, and then looked up at Saif through his dark lashes. “No matter how well that whole charade worked.”

“It had to be done,” Saif said, and brushed his fingers down Teferi’s throat. He could feel the noise of satisfaction, that lapcat purr, more than he could hear it. “If I hadn’t been able to pretend you were a political enemy who needed soothing with an invitation to my wedding, you’d simply have crashed it anyway.”

“I still say it would have been more entertaining,” Teferi said, and undid one of the clasps holding his shirt closed, exposing his collarbones for Saif to attend to.

“Pah,” Saif said as he leaned in to kiss Teferi’s throat. It was entirely likely that they were completely visible from other boxes in the opera house, but it was also entirely certain that he did not care. Not after this long. “It would have caused more drama. My mother and Basima would have fought for years over which one of them truly got to claim responsibility for your murder.”

“My bet would have been on your mother,” Teferi said as his hand found an opening in Saif’s shirt and slid inside. Still clever, they were, and when his hand pressed against Saif’s chest, all tremble in it went still. He’d been lean once, sharp and sleek as one of his grandfather’s desert hunting hounds, but now Teferi’s fingers didn’t halt or hesitate at the feel of how his body had thickened age, any of the wrinkles he bore now.

“Mine too,” he said, and then gasped into Teferi’s throat as he circled a thumb around his nipple. When they’d been younger, ironically, these meetings had not become so immediately full of adolescent half-clothed gropings; they’d managed pleasant conversation through the length of the performance with some twining of fingers and discreet kisses until they could retire elsewhere, usually to Teferi’s airship. Now that they were unquestionably old men, though, every moment available needed to be seized immediately, with mouths and hands and more. Pleasant conversation could come when there was time.

Teferi urged him more horizontal, looming over him before smiling into his throat and kissing there, turning his face upward to give Saif’s beard a playful tug with his teeth. He had always been thin (thinner now, Saif noticed, as his hands slid along Teferi’s sides and felt how the careful tailoring of his clothing now hung too loose) but strong. Of course, he could have had all the force of a spring breeze and Saif would always go on his back for him. He grabbed at Teferi’s hair — convenient, that, he could get to enjoying that — and pulled him up from his neck. “You idiot, you haven’t even properly kissed me yet.”

“Ah, but I have improperly kissed you plenty,” Teferi said, even as he brushed his lips against Saif’s, a teasing touch to make him shiver. “I have stored up so many improper kisses, you see.” His voice went as low as the baritone’s, but was so soft, a performance just for Saif’s ears. Saif kissed him, long and sweet, bringing the memory of Teferi’s imperfect and perfect lips to life again, relearning his taste to keep with him after the night had ended. Teferi drew back to breathe hotly against him. “Yes, the proper ones too. Of course.”

They kissed for a long while, nothing more than just the touch of mouths, long enough that the intermission ended, the house lights dimmed, and the sounds of the orchestra floated up to their box again. When the singers hit their first notes, Saif in that moment couldn’t tell human from automaton; all he could think of was the human heart beating above him, the only one that had kept him snared for all this time.

Teferi’s hand moved down Saif’s body to rest over his erection, causing him to gasp as he fit his palm to it through the fabric. His heart wasn’t the only thing feeling young tonight. Teferi smirked against his mouth. “And how is your wife?”

Saif rolled his eyes and grasped Teferi’s wrist, pushing his hand down harder over his groin. “She sends her regards,” he said, and she had, although perhaps not in the warmest of terms. Teferi kissed him again, just a peck, and removed enough of Saif’s clothes to draw his cock free. His fingers curled around it tantalizingly light, and Saif bit his lower lip.

“Please give mine, as well,” Teferi said, and after a few strokes from his almost unbearably loose grip, he drew away from Saif, slowly sliding to his knees in front of him. “Look! Look, you still manage to bring me to my knees!”

Saif propped himself up a little to watch him. “And I will manage to bring you up again and listen to you grouse about the state of those knees later.”

Teferi smiled and inclined his head, first in a nod of agreement and then to come near Saif’s eager erection. “That will be later,” he said, and brushed his lips over the tip of Saif’s cock. “And it will be worth it.”

Saif closed his eyes and let out a soft groan to harmonize with the chorus as Teferi’s mouth closed over him. They’d done this more than just within the opera box, so many times, but he would never, ever tire of it. There’d been the first time in Teferi’s airship, Saif’s back pressed up against a humming piece of machinery, where in the few seconds before he came he formulated the exact plan to run away with him forever (immediately forgotten within the post-ecstatic haze.) There’d been the utterly absurd time Teferi had convinced him deep into the desert, where rutting in a tent had seemed nostalgic and romantic at the time, until Teferi spent the entire next day finding new ways to complain about sand in sensitive areas. There were all the times that Teferi had snuck into his rooms, past Family guards and security systems and his wife in what he liked to term his assassination attempts, the kind that left Saif dead only from exhaustion when the two of them were sprawled naked in his bed. It had only been within the box in recent years, but every time Teferi took him in deep brought all the years before back.

He gasped for breath and grasped the back of the seat. He grabbed at the back of Teferi’s neck and pulled him deeper. He could feel him laugh at that, a tickle at the tip of his cock as it nudged the back of his throat. If he dared to let him draw back Teferi would tease him about his greediness, his impatience; he kept a hand on the back of his head to prevent that. He had earned some greed.

Teferi’s hand found his own where it gripped the ridge of the seat-back and he threaded his fingers with Saif’s. He could feel the tremor there as they brushed over the backs of his knuckles and he stilled it with a squeeze, hard and then harder as his nerves crested into orgasm. He added to the orchestration with a rough shout, and held Teferi’s head in place until he began to go soft, until he could feel Teferi laugh.

Relaxation spread through his body and he lifted his head to see Teferi licking his lips. “What’s so funny?” he said, tongue heavy in his mouth. Every passing year of life made it harder and harder to not just fall asleep immediately post-orgasm.

“Your timing was excellent,” Teferi said, as he leaned back a little, his sprawl on the thick carpet somewhat ungraceful. “The mezzo was singing a line, oh, oh, could she be freed from this life, could she keep pleasure in her heart and be lifted up, and then at the perfect moment…” He grinned and brushed his fingers along Saif’s leg. “You were lifted up.”

“I was meant for the stage,” Saif said, and tried to sit up some, feeling boneless and half-drunk. He looked down at Teferi. “If I come down where you are neither of us will ever get up.”

Teferi took both of his hands in his soft grasp. “I will simply call an usher at the end of the performance to help up two such clumsy elderly gentlemen.” Saif laughed and went down to the floor as delicately as he could, ending up half on top of Teferi as he kissed him again, kissed his own taste lingering in Teferi’s mouth. Perhaps instead they could just stay there forever, rugburn or no.

Teferi brushed his fingers up over Saif’s hair, along his temples where it had gone fully white. He touched them to the sensitive spots just behind Saif’s ears and said against his lips, “And your children are well?”

Saif closed his eyes and placed his hand on Teferi’s body, over his heart, feeling the heat pulsing from his slim form. “They are.”

Teferi made him gasp when he ghosted his lips along the shell of his ear. “And your grandchildren?”

Saif laughed a little and said, “Plentiful and healthy.”

Teferi kissed his neck for a long while, teasing at his skin with mouth and teeth with such vigorousness that Saif would likely have a mark there later, a fine souvenir and embarrassment for him to come home with. He had no argument with it now, though, unless Teferi chose to interpret the rough gasping coming from him as complaint. “Good,” Teferi said against the apple of Saif’s throat. “I need to make sure someone is keeping an eye on you.”

That apple jumped against Teferi’s lips as he swallowed at the note he heard there. He would ignore it for now, brushing over it like one mistuned note in the whole swell of the orchestra below. “Many someones,” he said, and moved his hand from Teferi’s heart to another vital organ.

“Ah!” Teferi took in breath and lifted his hips up from the floor into Saif’s touch, the slight arch of his back a pleasant reminder of the tangles they’d wind up in in younger, more flexible days. “Also need to know how many future enemies I can expect.”

“Yes, please be wary of all of the vicious toddlers,” Saif said, and then halted further conversation for a time with his mouth. It would be good to taste him again, to return the favor just so kindly paid, but for the moment he couldn’t draw himself away from being face to face with Teferi, teasing his plump lower lip with his teeth, feeling the shudder of his breath on his cheek. He stroked Teferi’s cock through soft fabric until he felt it begin to dampen under his palm, until Teferi moaned into his mouth. Saif could only hope it was well timed with the music.

He tried to keep kissing Teferi’s mouth as he drew his prick from his clothing and stroked it, but he kept breaking away from him, to skim his lips along the softened hairs of his beard, to sigh into his ear. His cock was long and thin as the rest of him, and Saif remembered so many times that it had been inside him, when he’d been on his back, when he’d been riding high, when he’d been crammed up into a wall. Perhaps, if he was lucky, they could retire to Teferi’s ship tonight and enjoy such an endeavour. He wouldn’t get his hopes too caught on that, though.

Teferi, he gradually realized, was singing along to the opera below. Saif had never truly been a man of the arts and had forgotten the music altogether, save for the beat of his own pulse, but now there was a breathless and beautiful baritone singing words he didn’t understand into his ear as he stroked Teferi’s cock. It was a woman singing on stage, one of the automata; Saif would have replaced her with Teferi’s deeper human voice in a moment.

His song became little more than gasps as Saif moved his hand faster. He had a tin ear and a worthless sense of rhythm but he was still pulled by the music coming from below, and even more by the music coming from Teferi’s mouth. He was kissing him when Teferi came, catching the sound in his mouth as he caught his release in his hand.

He rest his head on Teferi’s shoulder when he was spent. “Now, what am I supposed to do with this?” he said, holding up his soiled hand. Teferi laughed, a rich rumble coming deep within his chest.

“Please,” he said. “They know well enough to clean the carpets well after the fourth performance, after this long.”

Saif laugh and wiped his hand onto what he knew to be terribly expensive carpeting. The donation he’d made in his name had been very ample, though. He spent a few moments tugging both of their clothes into some sense of order before settling against Teferi, arm curled around his slim waist and head cradled against his shoulder. He sighed when Teferi wrapped his arm around him, pulling him close.

“Do you know this opera?” he asked, after a while.

“No,” Saif admitted. “It’s actually been quite lost on me. My Old Fatwi is not what it once was.”

“They do provide a translation reader,” Teferi said, but he surely felt Saif roll his eyes. “Shall I tell you?”

“Yes,” Saif said, because nothing that could be done on the stage below, be it by all flesh and blood performers or a choir of perfect machines, could ever match the pleasure of Teferi telling him a story. He’d heard many, most of them claimed to be true stories of his exploits, and some that obviously were lies; some more were old myths, and the rarest yet were the tales of his god, the one perhaps only Saif knew he prayed to.

“It’s about a woman, you see,” Teferi said, and his hand curled up along Saif’s spine to twine those shaking fingers in the ends of his hair. “She has humble beginnings, and she is devoted to her faith. But then her god appears to her — and this is not your or my god, but one that is much older — and tells her that there is a path for her, and though it might seem strange, she must trust in him.” Saif was silent, and Teferi laughed. “I can tell you weren’t paying attention at all, because said god appears with a simply massive codpiece. It’s in the script!”

Saif laughed into his shoulder. “No, I wasn’t,” he said. “I was just waiting for you.”

Teferi pulled him closer. “I came,” he said, and then sighed. “I had trouble parking.” Saif snorted into Teferi’s collar and got a kiss on the crown of his head in return. “But as I was saying, our heroine, she follows the guidance of that old god and she first becomes a prostitute in a brothel, and she happens to be very good at it, and actually quite enjoys it.” Saif could feel him smile against his hairline. “You can see why this is a popular opera. She catches the attention of some important people and becomes a royal courtesan. Her king notices her, and takes her into the closest of his harem.” Teferi brought Saif’s hand up to kiss his fingers, letting them rest on his mouth when his hand could not hold them aloft. “The king falls in love with her, of course, because this is an opera.” Saif laughed, and closed his eyes to trace his fingers around Teferi’s lips. Were he blind he would always remember their shape. “So he makes her his wife.”

“Oh!” Saif said, and kissed Teferi’s long neck. “Such a scandal.”

“Mm, not so much in the Fatwi kingdoms, or at least in the old ones,” he said. “Not unusual at all, really. So she is his wife, and she is beloved by king and country and the people. And when the king dies, he has no proper sons, so she becomes the queen.” Saif remembered catching a glimpse of one of the performers, that lovely soprano, adorned in a radiant headdress that he could recognize now as royal. “But she isn’t happy.”

“Of course not,” Saif said as he settled his hand back over Teferi’s heart, feeling the pulse of it, paying no heed to any falters in his rhythm. “It wouldn’t be an opera if she were.”

“Oh, love, you have been paying attention now and then over all these years.” Saif turned his face into Teferi’s chest at the term of affection, hiding whatever color it brought to his cheeks. He was simply too old to blush like that. “Yes, of course she isn’t. She doesn’t want to be queen. It’s not the responsibility she desires. She is no leader of men, no mother of children. So…” Teferi turned his head, ear facing upwards to listen to the music still going on below. “Mm. To spoil the end, she abandons the throne and leaves the kingdom in disarray, giving up her name and title to return to her brothel, to create pleasure for men and for her god.”

“And then?” Saif said, after a while of listening to the frantic tickling of the pipers below.

“Well, as we have said, it is an opera,” Teferi said, and curled his other arm around Saif’s waist. “She dies.”

Saif lifted his lips to rest them on Teferi’s neck. His skin was warm and alive, tasted of salt and the kind of metals you’d never find on anything but human flesh. “And that’s it?”

“She becomes the courtesan of her god in the afterlife, of course,” Teferi said. “All sort of a plan of his, to prepare her to join him in the beyond.”

“Ah, very clever,” Saif said.

“As gods do tend to be,” Teferi said. “She’s gone from life, but she’s happy. All of it lead her just where she needed to be. It was all worth it, in the end.”

Saif twined his fingers with Teferi’s again and let their hands rest over his stomach, feeling the slight rise and fall of his stomach with each breath. He turned his head down to listen to Teferi’s chest, to the whoosh of breath and the thud of his heart, until the last strains of the orchestra had gone quiet and that soprano had found her peace with her lustful god.

“Not a very long opera,” he said into the folds of Teferi’s clothing.

“No,” Teferi said, and pulled him up to kiss him for a long while, and then returned him back to rest against his chest without meeting his eyes. “They never do seem long enough.”

“I’ll have a word with the company,” Saif said. Teferi would soon summon an usher with great drama and spin a dramatic tale about how they had both tumbled to the ground in awe of the artistry before them that absolutely no one would believe, and their old bones would be pulled standing again by young hands. Maybe he would go to Teferi’s ship, find a temporary place once more in the rooms there, feel skin against skin in his sheets for another night. “I’ll have them select something unbearably long for the start of next season.”

“I hope you do,” Teferi said, and rest his hand upon Saif’s cheek. The tips of his fingers were cold against the rise of Saif’s cheekbones. “One of the truly dull ones that lasts for days.”

Saif shut his eyes tight. “Be on time, then. If I’m going to suffer, I have to insist that you do so just as much.”

“Of course I will,” Teferi said, and even after all these years Saif could not tell a life-long gambler’s lie from his promise. He kissed Teferi for a long while, as the house lights came up and the opera house emptied. In a year from now, perhaps, the stage would be filled with a cast of automata, the only ones with the stamina and interest to perform whatever Saif’s donations would urge them to play. Perhaps he would hear the perfection of their harmonies rise to meet them, and the imperfect baritone murmuring in his ear to tell him what it all meant. Perhaps the hand that curled around his waist would be steady then.

He had never been an artist, though. He could only predict the turn of gears, the corrosion of wires, not how any third act would play out. It would all have been worth it, though. That he knew, with the certainty of a wholly human heartbeat.

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