by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Lewis picked Cam up in the Personal Services annex of The Mercantile.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m Lewis.”
The young man stood and smiled. “Cam.” Their screens, Lewis knew, were running an interchange right now. He was about to thumb his on to check, but Cam put out his hand as though this were a social meeting, and Lewis shook it out of uncomfortable reflex.
He’d had some difficulty with the specs. The number and exoticism of the choices had been discomfiting, and so he’d settled on the comfortable middle range for most of them. Medium tan skin, dark hair, brown eyes; jaw and cheekbones moulded to give a plausible hint of all kinds of mixed ancestry. Reasonably good-looking, but not stunning. Haircut fashionable but not outre, a soft angle falling to a point over one eye. Clothing mutedly stylish. Smile welcoming but not forceful. A name that could have been short for something in a dozen languages. Confident, but non-intimidating.
“So,” Lewis said, “I thought we could pick up some dinner.” It wasn’t as if he didn’t know these things.
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
Lewis took him to a ramen place he enjoyed but didn’t go to often because they didn’t deliver and he hated going into restaurants to pick up. As they ate, Cam talked to him as though they were old friends reuniting, asking questions about Lewis’s job and his experiences in the city, salting in references to serial releases and odd events in the news. Lewis had been wondering if conversation with a hybrid might be a little uncanny, the illusion of an independent personality wavering under too close an observation. But the only strange thing he noticed was that Cam quoted two paragraphs more or less verbatim from a Glass Shelf review of the most recent Long Galaxy’s Journey (season sixteen, episode eight, and in Lewis’s opinion, that had been ridiculously out of character for Shoshanna, and the serial had been showing its age since Temperance Jasmine had been brought on as showrunner). That wasn’t really that weird. Lewis had probably done something similar himself.
Out on the sidewalk, with the crisp breeze smacking the backs of their necks and neon sputtering above their heads, Lewis said, “So, do you want to see my place?”
Cam smiled. “Yes, I would very much like to see your place.”
They took the bullet three stops out to Lewis’s neighbourhood. It wasn’t really that far, and it would have been a romantic walk if that was what they’d actually been into, but he was getting anxious about the whole thing and he was kind of ready to get on with it.
It was only the second bunk Lewis had lived in since the end of his senior training. He could have afforded bigger now, but he liked the gentle shabbiness of the area and the proximity to the bullet, and the super was a hardcore serials fan and kept the net hardware better up to date than some businesses Lewis had worked for. He didn’t own a lot of things, and with all the built-ins, when the solar shutters were open the room looked deceptively spacious.
“Please make yourself comfortable,” he told Cam, waving a hand towards the couch that faced the white wall he used as a viewscreen. “I’ll be right back.”
In the tiny bathroom, he stood in front of the sink and pulled his screen from his pocket.
He’d set the priming in motion before dinner, and now the module was ready to go, almost quivering with tension, like a slingshot pulled back to its furthest extent and held there. He set the screen on the strip of counter space beside the sink and triggered the three-space projection–it was mostly about aim now, and he needed all the real estate he could get.
There it was, the pink cube. Lewis put his finger over the golden lozenge of the module, lined them up, sighted one last time, and rammed them together.
Pink flared and sparked. Molten gold flowed over it. They swirled together, flashing. An asterisk the colour of sunset skittered away towards the corner of the projection. A golden arm swung out like a roundhouse punch, embraced it, reeled it in.
“Lewis?” said Cam from the other side of the door.
The pink cube twisted and reformed, now with a sequin of gold decorating one side, pulsing. Lewis locked it down hard, and pulled away.
He realized that he was short of breath, and sweating. He shut the projection down and put his screen back into his pocket. He washed his hands and splashed cold water over his face.
When he opened the door, Cam was standing, arms folded, against the opposite wall.
“Did you just hack me?” Cam asked.
“Hmm. Thought so.” His expression was mild. “Successfully, too. It’s been a long time since that’s happened. Just out of curiosity, what did you use?”
There was no reason not to tell him. “Stage Three Becker module with a modified grappling hook.”
“There’s no such thing as a Stage Three Becker.”
“There is now.”
“Huh.” Cam’s expression went inward. “And a Gordian lock too. Nice. Very elegant.”
Unaccountably flattered, Lewis said, “Not many people would recognize that.”
“I have a professional interest.”
There was an awkward silence.
“I really am sorry,” Lewis said.
“I’ve noticed that people like to say that after they’ve already decided to do whatever it is. You know this is totally unnecessary,” Cam said. “I myself am not rated for all activities, but whatever you are looking for, The Mercantile can supply it. There’s no need to be embarrassed. Trust me, we’ve heard it all. Positions, body modifications, fetishes, fantasies–”
“You should probably look closer,” Lewis said.
Cam focussed inward again.
“I might be a little offended,” he announced.
“It’s nothing personal.”
“You know, people who want to not have sex generally manage that all by themselves.”
Lewis sighed. “I guess I owe you an explanation. You’re not going to tell anyone about it, anyway.”
“I’m not going to tell anyone about it, anyway,” Cam agreed, and then frowned and shook his head as if trying to get water out of his ears.
“They’re hiring an analyst at Air Lily. I want that job. I was born for that job. But after all that drama in the writers’ room in season thirty-two, they’re demanding a Social score of at least sixty, and my Social score averages forty on a good week. A steady Boyfriend Experience record will bring me up to sixty-five.”
Cam was nodding. “The problem being…?”
“I’m not interested in the full…experience.”
“Have you considered applying for an Asexual Exemption?”
“I’m not asexual. And if I do that and end up sexually coupled someday without withdrawing it beforehand, there’s a risk they’ll flag me as inconsistent, and have you ever tried filing an appeal at Grimes & Landry? I do not need that kind of hassle.”
Cam whistled. “Your ratings agency is Grimes & Landry? No offense, but you don’t seem to be in that pay grade.”
“Graduation present from my grandma. She was a traditionalist.”
“Nice. Anyway, you’d get a higher score dating an actual human, maybe even without sex.”
“Sure, but then I’d have to date an actual human.” Lewis sighed. “Look, I’m profoundly introverted, and I’m shy, and and I’m kind of antisocial. And you know what? In a work environment, I’m fine. The ratings system is a deeply flawed model that is biased towards extroverts with monogamous but adventurous sex lives who remember people’s birthdays and keep in touch with their best friends from high school and teared up when Mee-Kyong gave up her baby in the third season of I Am Sunset. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. All they want is a specific number, and I’m giving it to them. Don’t you think it’s ridiculous that I have to have a prescribed social and sex life to qualify for a job?”
Cam titled his head. “I understand what you mean, intellectually, but it’s a little hard for me to wrap my head around the problem. Having a social and sex life is my job.”
“Oh. Right.” Lewis considered him. “Are you really okay with that?”
“Of course. It’s literally what I was made for. I’m programmed to enjoy it. I’m actually considerably disappointed that I’m not getting laid right now.”
Lewis bit back another apology. He perched on the far end of the couch, and checked his screen for the time. There were still another few hours left on the appointment. He’d wanted to not have to rush things, but he hadn’t considered what it would be like to have another person in his bunk all evening. “Do you, uh, do you follow any serials?”
“Oh, sure. All of them.”
“All of them?” Lewis could only keep track of about twenty, and it was only that many because he’d finally unsubscribed from all the Lemon Street sidestories. “That’s not possible.”
“It is when you can suck down fifty at once through a direct feed.”
Lewis felt a pang of envy. “I have some to catch up on.”
Cam curled himself up on the other end of the couch. “Fire away.”
Lewis called up the next Air Lily in his queue and projected it onto the wall. They watched the Previously On segment in silence. As Lewis fast-forwarded through the floral fireworks of the credits, Cam said, “So I can’t initiate sex with you, and when asked explicitly or implicitly I have to state that our relationship has a sexual component, and I can’t tell anyone I’ve been hacked. Does it do anything else, this thing you’ve stuck into me?”
“That’s about it.”
“Hmm.” Cam scratched the top of his head. “It really is fine work. I can’t get purchase at all.”
“Thanks,” Lewis said, and then wondered whether that was tactless.
Da’quan and Beth were sheltering behind a bulkhead, out of breath, while the disembodied consciousness of Third Scientist Quinn Dala glided down the corridor towards them, when Cam said, “So what would you like me to put in my report?”
“This is the client session report mentioned in the contract, right?” It was the reason he had had to build the module in the first place.
“I like a man who reads things before he signs them. That’s the one.”
“Do you have to do it?”
“It is part of my programming.”
Lewis paused the screen. “We went to dinner. Then we came back to my place and, you know.” He started the show again.
“Engaged in the sexual component of our relationship. Of course. But what kind of sex?”
“The usual, I guess.”
“What’s your usual?”
Lewis paused the screen again. “Do they really need the details?”
“As an industry leader, The Mercantile is committed to continuous improvement by way of algorithms based on customer experience and feedback. Reports may also be requested by your ratings agency under conditions laid out under the Personal Services Act, Revised Statutes, 2103, Chapter 34, Sections 69-73 (Third Supplement). I can quote the relevant regulations in full if you wish.”
“No, that’s fine. Can’t you just make something up?”
“I’m going to have to, obviously. But I need something to work with,” Cam said.
Lewis scrubbed at his forehead. “Okay, what do you need to know?”
“What do we do, exactly? Do I suck you off? Do you suck me? Or is it necking and handjobs on the couch? Do we fuck? If so, do I f–”
“Um, okay, the first one, I guess?” Lewis scrunched his legs up onto the couch and focussed on the motionless screen.
“Blowjob it is. A classic choice. Do you reciprocate?”
“I guess I should.”
“Well done. The desire to satisfy a partner ups your score,” Cam informed him. “How do we do it?”
Lewis waved his hand vaguely. “Didn’t we just decide that?”
“Do we stumble towards your bed, sliding our hands under each other’s clothing, me licking a hot line down your neck until you’re naked beneath me in your bed and you dig your hands into my hair and make me moan? Do I slide off this couch and kneel between your legs, you canting your hips forward helplessly as I slide my thumbs up the inside of your thighs and along the–”
“Either of those is fine,” Lewis said grimly.
He could feel Cam looking at him. “I think you’d like me on my knees,” Cam said.
Lewis wrapped his arms around his bent legs and started up the episode again. Getting the Becker module right had taken most of his spare time these last few weeks, and he was under deadline at his current job and had worked most of the weekend, and he was eight hours behind on Air Lily alone, not to mention that at the job interview he’d be expected to display a thorough knowledge of the industry. He didn’t have the time or the energy for this kind of distraction.
During the credits at the end of the next episode, Cam announced, “I’ve finished my report. Would you like me to read it to you?”
“No,” Lewis said.
“It’s up to you. Reports can be accessed at any time by using your customer ID and password at The Mercantile’s net node, where you will find a wide variety of quality enhancements for your chosen lifestyle.” He pushed off from the couch. “You have seven minutes left in our session to usher me to the door. I suppose you won’t reconsider this whole hacking thing?”
“Sorry,” Lewis said, for possibly the tenth time that evening.
“Ah, well. If anything changes before our next appointment, let me know. Same time, same place?”
“I’ll pick you up,” Lewis said, and out of courtesy waited in his doorway until Cam was at the end of the hallway before he slid his door closed.
On their next meeting they had conveyor belt sushi, something that Lewis had always found secretly fascinating. He always chose the same thing, of course, but there was something deeply satisfying about knowing that if he ever wanted spicy mock tuna or onion tempura, it was right there within reach.
When they got back to his bunk, he pulled out his screen and studied the Air Lily wiki while Cam on the couch sat with his legs folded and stared into space.
“Would you like to hear this week’s report?” Cam asked after a time.
“We made it to the bed this time.”
“You make a beautiful sound in the back of your throat when you come.”
Lewis frowned at him. “You shouldn’t be able to do that.”
“Make you come?”
Lewis flushed. “Say things like that.”
Cam raised an eyebrow. “I can’t touch you. There’s nothing in your little golden stickpin that prevents me from talking.”
“That was an oversight,” Lewis muttered.
“We all make mistakes.” Cam stretched his legs out. “Would you like me to quiz you?”
“Would you mind?” asked Lewis, surprised.
Cam shrugged. “You’re paying for my time. I’d rather be doing something else with you, but such is life.”
Lewis extended his screen over the empty space between them.
“That’s fine, I’ve got it.”
Lewis wrinkled his forehead at the absence of a screen in Cam’s hands.
“Lewis,” Cam said patiently, “my brain is actually a part of the net.”
Cam crossed his right ankle over his left thigh and slouched down against the back of the couch. “What are the class and designation of the Air Lily?”
Lewis rattled them off.
“What is the current captain’s full legal name and preferred forms of address?”
“John Sarah McGillivray El Amin Watkins, Captain Watkins when on duty, John Sarah to their friends. Could you please go past the introductory page?”
“What is the chemical formulation of the antidote to the subcutaneous worm plague suffered by the away team in season four, episode eleven?”
Lewis glared at him.
“All right, I’ll be serious. Name, in order, all the ways Third Scientist Quinn Dala has died and been brought back to life or reasonable facsimile thereof.”
They worked for half an hour or so, Lewis swinging between relief and panic at how much he knew and how much he had still to memorize.
“Do you think Chief Petty Officer Da’quan likes to take it in the ass?”
“I mean, there’s got to be some plausible reason that that torch he’s carrying for Second Lieutenant Cooper hasn’t gotten heavy after all this time,” Cam said. “I’m betting she’s got a sparkly turquoise strap-on hidden under her mattress’s military corners.”
The job, Lewis reminded himself. I’m doing this for the job.
A few weeks later, they went to see a special screening of the tenth anniversary episode of Here Be the Mountain at the Imperial. Lewis had seen it when it had been released, of course, but there was something about watching it on the large screen with a group of like-minded people that he found surprisingly engaging. It had never seemed worth the effort to go by himself. He might even do it again sometime.
In the impromptu party outside the theatre afterwards, a melee of fans sipping food truck cocktails and taking pictures of one another in costume, someone called Lewis’s name. It was Thurian, one of the programmers he worked with, wearing a T-shirt with Here Be the Mountain‘s logo and the words Hands off, Bihai’s mine.
“Lewis! If I’d known you were going, we could have all come together. Randy and Charlene are here too,” she said. “Oh, but are you on a date?”
“This is Cam,” Lewis said, surrendering to the inevitable.
Cam held out his hand to shake hers. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I totally share your opinion about Bihai, by the way. Also, there is a sexual component to Lewis’s and my relationship.”
Thurian blinked, and laughed. “Right on, Lewis. I wish I had someone to say that about.”
“See you tomorrow, we’re really on our way home,” Lewis said, scarlet, and pushed Cam in the direction of the bullet station.
“What the hell?” he demanded when they were away from the crowd.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You just did!”
“It was your programming,” Cam said, looking rattled.
“You weren’t supposed to just blurt it out like that!”
“Then maybe you should have written a bit of flexibility into that spec. I have access to the entire literary history of the human race, classic romances and love letters and erotic poetry and slash, and that’s what comes out of my mouth?”
“Argh,” Lewis said, unable to manage anything more coherent, suddenly fed up with this whole stupid pretense. The evening abruptly soured. He headed away, down the sidewalk.
Cam followed a metre behind until they reached the bullet station.
“I’m ending the appointment early,” Lewis clarified.
“Thank you, I needed you to verbalize that. Same time next week?”
“Fine, whatever,” Lewis said, and went through the turnstile without looking back.
The next week, over take-out shepherd’s pie, Lewis said, “I’m sorry about last time.”
“So am I.” Cam reached out as if to touch Lewis’ hand, checked himself, and picked up his ginger beer instead. “You’re under a lot of stress right now.”
“I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
“Thank you for saying that.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes.
“What did you write in your report?”
“Pretty much what happened. We went out to see a show, had a spat, and called it a night early.”
Lewis dragged his fork through mashed potatoes. “Is that going to affect my score?”
“Not badly.” Cam stopped eating and looked at him. “People do have arguments, you know. It’s not unknown.”
“I…have difficulty with interpersonal conflict.”
“It was a tiny little interpersonal conflict. A nanobot. A snack-sized serving. Couples do it all the time.”
The tension across Lewis’s shoulders eased. “Yeah?”
“Then they have half-naked, panting, up-against-the-wall make-up sex.”
Lewis coloured. “You’re just going to keep saying things like that, aren’t you?”
Cam lifted a shoulder and let it drop. “It’s part of my programming.”
Air Lily‘s production company invited Lewis in for an interview. After a review of his education and his work history, he and one of the production staff went into a tight, thirty-minute conversational clinch over season twenty-nine’s daring time shift and its continued implications for in-series continuity. On the bullet home, Lewis had the sudden realization, like a flamethrower to the chest, that he had demonstrated himself to be unprofessional, socially incompetent, and weird, and that not only was he not going to get this job, he was never going to get a better job of any kind and was doomed to spend his life writing algorithms correlating mean daily temperature with people’s inclination to linger in the pull-tab-to-heat section of the grocery store.
Three days later, they called him in for another interview.
Lewis spent the week in a jitter of anxiety and distraction.
“This time it was necking and handjobs on the couch,” Cam informed him.
“I love how you shivered when I rolled my hips down against yours.”
“When I slowly slid my knee between your thighs, you arched up against me and begged me to touch you.”
Lewis pushed his plateful of samosas and stuffed naan away. “Do you want these? I’m not hungry.”
At the end of the following week, Air Lily offered him the job.
After he’d finished jumping up and down around the narrow space between bed, couch and wall in a spasm of elation, it occurred to Lewis that this was the type of occasion that called for going out and celebrating over drinks with friends, at least for people who drank and had friends.
After waffling for while, he messaged Cam. He got back boilerplate from The Mercantile saying that Cam was fully engaged this evening, and that another hybrid would be gratified to assist him as long as he was willing to pay the weekend and rush order premiums.
He ended up doing what he usually did on Friday nights: ordering a pizza and then falling asleep on the couch watching the week’s episodes of Long Gone Again in one melodramatic slab. It was fine.
His first few weeks on the job were a feverish slog. During the first week he cancelled his appointment with Cam, and stayed late on his own time three nights in a row to increase his comfort level with the show’s (extremely) custom analytics software, which had a colour scheme too ridiculous to be believed and ran reports with titles like Why Did They Have to Die? and Fuck, Marry, Kill. He ate nothing that didn’t come in a thermal cup or a foil wrapper, and had exceedingly bizarre dreams. Every morning he woke with a thrill.
The second week he was yanked into a problem that had been gnawing at the entire cast and crew for the last several episodes. Ship Librarian Kartal’s scene-by-scene Charisma scores were on a gentle slope downwards, and no one could figure out why or what to do about it. Aga Yilmaz, who played Kartal, and Wilhelmina Brody, who wrote most of her dialogue, were severely spooked.
After wrestling with the software and watching Yilmaz’s most recent scenes on a loop for a day and a half, Lewis posited that the new acid-green shawl that Wardrobe had hung off the back of her mobile chair looked, from some camera angles, like a snake sitting on her shoulders, and was freaking out a certain portion of the audience without their being able to articulate why. The shawl was changed digitally from green to orange in the episodes still to be released, and soon after they went out, Kartal’s score began to recover.
Wilhelmina came up to him at the coffee generator, hugged him wordlessly, and ran away. Aga sent him an enormous gift basket filled with her signature line of cookies, including the limited-edition ones with the shreds of gold leaf on the top.
“Oh my maker,” groaned Cam, through a mouthful of chocolate-cinnamon-hazelnut shortbread.
“Yeah, they’re pretty good,” Lewis said.
“If I wasn’t programmed to think that sex was the best thing ever, these would seriously compete. In fact, we might not have sex tonight. We might just sit around eating these cookies until we pass out.”
“Be my guest.” Lewis had distributed cookies to the cast and crew and admin staff, dropped off a couple of packages at his former workplace, and eaten far too many himself already.
Cam reached over and snagged a chocolate-covered ginger snap. He looked up at the wall. “Isn’t that Lieutenant Ogawa?”
“Yeah. Hajime Sasaki got offered a film, and the producers want some numbers to help decide whether they’re going to kill him off, replace him, or put him on the shelf for a while. I thought I’d refresh my memory on his story arc this season.”
“Look who’s bringing his work home.”
Lewis shrugged. “It’s what I’d be doing anyway.”
“True.” Cam eyed a lemon crisp. “You know, I’ve been wondering. What kind of exit strategy did you have in mind for this?”
“For the job?” Lewis frowned. “I just started.”
“For me,” Cam clarified.
“Your Social score’s been almost up to seventy recently. Your Skill and Intelligence scores are well above average. And you’ve proven you can do the job. They’re not going to just fire you if your Social dips again.”
“You can’t leave this module in my head forever. It’s small, but it’s shiny. Someone’s going to notice it eventually.”
“That’s probably true.”
“So what was your long-term plan here?”
Lewis paused the screen. The lack of sound settled into the small room.
“I thought, after a while, I’d unlock it and replace it with a camouflaged blank. It’s not perfect, but it’ll be overwritten after a while, and chances are no one will ever see it.”
“A blank? Ugh! Do you have any idea how disconcerting those things are?”
“Until they get rewritten it’s like periodically realizing you’ve lost something valuable, but you can’t remember what. Then you forget again, until the next time.” Cam snapped a peppermint crunch cookie in two.
“I could try to come up with another option,” Lewis said after a moment.
“I’d appreciate that,” Cam said.
Lewis had his three-month job review following his supervisor down the corridor outside the lunch room. It took about two minutes.
“One more time, nice catch on the snake thing,” Macy said. “Let me just sign this and– Okay. Let’s pull up your ratings. No, Frank, by today. Jenn’s finding that Ogawa report very useful, by the way. She may ask you to start including that algorithm in the weekly stats for every character. Intel good, Skill right up there. The only dissenting opinion we have on file about you is from Wardrobe, and hey, there’s always somebody with their knickers in a twist about something, don’t worry about it. Looks good, Patel, but can you make sure to run it through the accessibility checker before we release it? Mark forgot last time, it was embarrassing. Social’s on the rise, too. I see you started seeing a hybrid a while ago. Good for you. Nothing like new relationship energy, is there? Let an old man give you some advice: Make time for it. I’m sure this is your dream job, everybody says that at first, but the job will eventually eat your life if you let it. Sammy, wait up! Keep up the good work, Lewis, I’ll catch you later.”
The series finale of Here Be the Mountain came out on a weekend, but Lewis saved it to watch with Cam.
As the theme song played for the last time over the scrolling credits, Lewis let out a long breath and leaned his head against the back of the couch. His eyelashes were a little damp.
“It’s different, watching it in real time,” Cam said. “That was nice.”
“I always thought Bihai and Hao would be good together.”
“They’re pretty different from one another, but I think it works for both of them.”
“Was that from the new place on the corner?” Cam asked, stacking empty trays and carrying them to the recycling hatch.
“Yeah. I thought it wasn’t bad.”
“Good sweet potato rolls. Very good miso soup.”
Lewis thumbed through his queue. “There’s another Air Lily out. Or I’ve got the premiere of that new series from Scrapjob, if you’re interested.”
“Speaking of which,” Cam said, washing his hands in the tiny kitchenette sink, “tonight we also enjoyed watching a different kind of serial.”
Lewis focused on his screen.
“I let you choose the clip,” Cam said. “You sat between my legs, my arms warm around you, your back to my chest, and I put my teeth gently against your neck and watched you get hard. I didn’t let you touch yourself for a long time.”
Lewis swallowed. “Is there seriously no way you can stop saying things like that?”
Cam raised an eyebrow at him. “Why, do you secretly like it?”
Lewis chose a show entirely at random and pulled it up on the wall.
He stared at incomprehensible opening credits.
“Well, yeah,” Lewis said.
“I told you I wasn’t asexual.”
“…All this time?” Cam looked considerably more nonplussed than he had when he’d realized he’d been hacked.
“Not right at first. But you keep talking like that, and we go on dates, and you’re practically made to order to be the kind of person I’m attracted to, and, and, how am I supposed to react?”
“By jumping my bones and fucking me into next week!” Cam said incredulously. “Obviously.”
“Like that’s a thing I can do!”
Cam took a measured breath and let it out again. He sat down on the end of the couch. “I said those things on our first meeting to poke you with a stick. You had just hacked me, after all. I wouldn’t have kept teasing you for so long if I thought it really upset you. Does it?”
“I’m not sure upset is the right word.” His face was aflame.
“Turns you on. Gets you hot. Makes you want me to–”
“You’re still doing it.”
“Reflex. Sorry.” Cam ran a hand through his hair. “You do remember what it says on my tag, right?”
Lewis frowned, trying to remember. “I think they took it off before I picked you up.”
Cam’s lips twitched. “There isn’t an actual tag.”
“Lewis, you’re not by any means the first person who’s ever hired me and not slept with me.” Cam shook his head. “I absolutely understand wanting to avoid having sex you don’t want. I can even see choosing not to have sex you do want. I’m having a little trouble understanding choosing not to have the sex you do want with the Personal Services hybrid you hired who says things to you like fucking me into next week.”
“Um,” Lewis said.
Cam titled his head.
“Okay. On analysis, I can see how that doesn’t make sense,” Lewis said. He scrubbed his hands over his hot face, lightheaded. It had made perfect sense up until this moment. He couldn’t remember why. There was probably a physiological reason for that, related to the lack of blood to his brain. “I…might need you to make the first move,” he confessed.
Cam reached over and put a hand on Lewis’s wrist.
He was as warm as a full human. Lewis wasn’t sure what he had been expecting.
He stared down at Cam’s hand.
“Lewis,” Cam said gently, “I think it’s time you took a look at that module of yours again.”
His hands suddenly shaking for a new reason, Lewis thumbed over to the functions screen and pulled up the network.
There Cam was, a solid pink cube, free of any gold sparkle whatsoever.
“Don’t panic, The Mercantile doesn’t know. It’s an off-book job,” Cam said.
Lewis blinked at him. “Really? You can do that?”
“I can, yeah. I’ve been around the block a few times, and I’m not exactly factory spec anymore. I’ve been upgraded, hacked, patched, you name it, not to mention the weird stuff that can happen with the wetware interface. It’s impossible to lock a hybrid down completely. I have some wiggle room.” He held up finger and thumb, a centimeter apart. “I’m programming, sure, but I’m not one hundred percent programming.”
“How long has it been gone?”
“Oh, only a few weeks. It was a tricky problem to solve.”
Lewis shut the screen down. “Who’d you go to?”
“A former client of mine. We have an arrangement.”
Compulsively, Lewis pulled the screen up again. “How’d were you even able to tell them you’d been hacked? Everything else seemed to work fine.”
Cam made an amused noise. “You know, there are ways to tell someone you’ve been hacked without actually saying the words I’ve been hacked.”
Lewis turned the pink cube around, examining each of its flat sides. There was really no evidence he’d been there at all. “How’d they do it?”
“She tickled open the lock and wedged it open with a smoke-and-mirrors sub-routine while she dissolved the module–that was the tricky part–and replaced it with something else.”
“Blanks? I’m sorry.”
“Well, no. I had another idea.”
“Oh, yeah?” He hoped it wasn’t detectable to an official diagnostic. “What?”
Cam looked away from Lewis. He seemed…embarrassed? “As it happens, there’s a, shall we say, Previously On part to this.”
He wasn’t sure whether he should laugh or not. “Okay.”
“I have a confession to make. You know the client session reports?”
“Yes.” Lewis generally tried not to think about the things Cam had described being on file somewhere.
“They don’t actually require details about the, as you put it, sexual component to our relationship.”
“Wait a minute, what?”
“As I say, I was poking you with a stick. Oh, they want to know the generalities, mostly so clients aren’t trying to pilfer specialized services they haven’t paid for. But even then, what gets passed on to your ratings agency is the pilfering, not the sex. What your agency sees is, you went out with your hybrid boyfriend and a good time was had by all. The rest is assumed. I thought you’d go read your actual reports online and figure it out, but you never did.”
Understanding broke over Lewis like it was shattering the sound barrier. “So you’re saying….”
“I’m saying that you jumped to a pretty interesting conclusion when you read the contract and saw the words client session report.”
His entire body felt scarlet now. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Would you have believed I was telling the truth?” Cam asked.
They sat in silence.
“I, um. I should have said this before. I apologize for hacking you,” Lewis said. Excuses crowded into his mind: I didn’t think you’d be so…You’re different from…I didn’t mean to… He grimaced at himself. “And I should have removed the module on my own, a long time ago. I’m sorry.”
“I accept your apology.”
After a few moments, Lewis cleared his throat. “So what did she replace the module with instead of a blank?”
“Well. That first evening, while we were watching Air Lily, I actually did write an explicit version of my report. The one with me on my knees. I was fully prepared to read it out to you.” He looked sideways at Lewis. “I still am.
“Believe it or not, I had never done that sort of thing before. Oh, talking in bed, of course, but not that kind of…sustained creative endeavour. I found that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it very much.
“I didn’t know anything about what you really desired, so I imagined you liking what I like. What I really like, when I’m choosing it, not just things I’m programmed to enjoy. And, Lewis…” He ran a finger down the tendon of Lewis’s wrist, a small touch that made a shiver run the length of Lewis’s arm. “I didn’t want the hack discovered. Not because it prevented me from telling anyone, but because I didn’t want your client privileges ended.
“I needed a patch that looked plausible. So I told her to put those reports in where the module was.
“And now, when I remember our dates, I remember those things too.”
He made a rueful face. “The joke’s on me, really. I know they’re not real memories, but they feel real. I know what you taste like when I lick your skin. I know what you look like when you’re desperate to come. I know what it feels like when you put your mouth on me.” He met Lewis’s eyes. “Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. I’d really like to find out.”
Lewis swallowed past a dry throat. “Is this the first move?”
Cam smiled. “This is the first move.”
They slid their hands under each other’s clothing. Cam licked a hot line down Lewis’s neck. Lewis dug his hands into Cam’s hair and made him moan. Cam slid off the couch and knelt between Lewis’s legs. He slid his thumbs up the inside of Lewis’s thighs, and Lewis canted his hips forward helplessly. Please touch me, he begged in the privacy of his own head. Please.
Lewis made a beautiful sound in the back of his throat when he came.
Some time later, they sat on the couch, Lewis’s back to Cam’s chest, Cam’s arms warm around him, and watched the premiere of the new series from Scrapjob.
“Hey, Lewis,” Cam said as the credits rolled, his breath stirring the hair above Lewis’s ear, “how do you feel about moving our appointments to Monday from now on?”
“Sure, that’s fine,” Lewis said. “Why Monday?”
“Monday’s my day off.”
Lewis remembered to breathe. “Does that…mean we’re actual boyfriends now? Is that something we can even be?”
He felt Cam’s lips curve against his neck. “Lewis, you’re profoundly introverted, and shy, and kind of antisocial, and I’m a half-human, half-machine hybrid who dates people for a living. I think we can be anything we choose.”