Trembling Blue Stars
by Richard Kadrey
I was sitting at the counter, drinking espresso and smoking Gauloises at the Hellas Basin Cafe on Rozhdestvenka Street in Moscow.
The day before, we’d been riding the veer, ferrying supplies to an ASEAN research facility deep in the Oort Cloud. It was pleasant to be back on Earth. During each veer run, when time-space turned psychotic and the heavy rad poured in, we would go null and let our guests do the driving. These petit morts moments were necessary for deep space travel. Dying wasn’t such a bad thing if you knew that cigarettes and strong coffee would be waiting for you when it was over.
A woman walked up behind me and said, “Those black lines across your knuckles and the backs of your hands. I know what those tattoos mean.”
“You’re a cosmonaut. A deep space cowboy who rides a twenty-kilometer bucking bronco between the stars.”
“Clever girl. Your parents must be very proud.”
I’d seen her when she walked in. My guest’s oddly augmented vision revealed her in a distorted panorama of the cafe the moment she entered. I was hoping she wouldn’t see me.
“Hello, Valentina,” I said and turned my head politely in her direction.
“I thought you were dead.”
“I know. That was a joke,” she said.
“A good one, too.”
“You look very handsome for a corpse.”
Valentina had changed since I’d last seen her. Her hair was long, well past her shoulders where before it had been buzzed close to her scalp. She wore little makeup and was noticeably thinner, but no less beautiful. Her nails were short. It looked like she’d been gnawing the ends.
“I didn’t really believe that you’d go through with it. You let them murder you so you could be a handbag for a parasite.”
“Don’t talk to me about that tabloid nonsense. It’s the newsfeeds way to sell ads. Aliens and ghosts roaming the stars slots in nicely between celebrity gossip and government conspiracies .”
“But you are dead, Arkadi. They took out all your organs. You’re as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. You don’t even breathe. That thing inside you feeds you oxygen.”
“Our brains still work. As long as our brains work, we’re still ourselves.”
“Are you sure? I read that the doctors do things to your brains.”
“It’s just a volume adjustment. Our guests can’t stand all the noise, the stimulation in ordinary human brains. But we’re still who we are, just a bit steadier.”
“You let them lobotomize you.”
I turned fully toward Valentina. It was purely for her benefit, to give her the sensation of personal contact. She was leaning one elbow on the counter looking at me that way a poor wife might consider the last, sad chicken in a butcher shop.
“This is a very interesting conversation,” I said. “We haven’t seen each other in over two years and all you want to talk about are the whereabouts of my liver and pancreas.”
“I want to know that it’s you I’m talking to and not some meat puppet run by a space monster.”
I drank the rest of my espresso and held up my cup to the waitress for more.
“How did you know I was here?”
“I didn’t. I eat lunch here two or three times a week.”
“Why would you eat at a cosmonaut hangout?”
“Didn’t you hear? My husband left me to run off to play spaceman with his friends.”
She reached across the counter and took one of the Gauloises, picked up my hand and used my cigarette to light hers. The subtle differences in our ambient skin temperature made her hand felt very warm. My guest curled itself inside me, retreating from the sensation..
“How do you smoke, if you don’t have lungs?” she asked.
“I contract and relax the muscles of my diaphragm. It takes a little practice. The good news is that I wont ever get lung cancer.”
“I fucking hate you.”
“Good” I said. “Then you can let me go and forget you ever knew me.”
A couple at a table by the window got up and left. Valentina took me by the hand and led me to where they’d been sitting. Through the window, we could see the outline of the Kremlin and the old Savoy Hotel, a bright pre-Soviet bauble, built like a ridiculous toy fort, a fantasy castle for a giant child. Its old-world lines were marred by a patched mylar dome on the roof hiding an array of microwave antennas, satellite relays, water and air scrubbers. In the plaza below was a traveling carnival with glowing, swooping rides and virtual wild animals prowling the grounds.
Nothing stays the same. The old is jettisoned. The new incorporated. Everything, if it exists long enough, is a chimera.
“How could I forget you when you just disappeared? You could have stayed long enough for me to throw you out. That would have been the polite thing to do.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking very clearly at the time. I was scared. I was scared of you; and I was scared of wanting so badly to go to the stars. I’m better now, though.”
“And all you had to do was let them gut you like a fish and fill you up with an alien parasite. Were you really that anxious to get away from me?”
“The alterations are necessary. Humans can’t function in deep space. Our guests are the only thing that makes it possible. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
“I think you love your alien more than ever you loved me.”
I gestured to the waitress to bring us our coffee by the window. I drew on my cigarette. A pleasantly acrid stream of smoke filled my mouth. Cigarettes are the perfect prop when you have nothing to say.
“I didn’t stop loving you. I just loved the stars more.”
“But you don’t love me now.”
“I can’t love you. They cut those kinds of things out of me.”
“Right. Cosmonauts are heroes and above all those sticky human connections. What do you suppose they do with your excised brain matter, Arkadi? All those feelings locked away in the dead neurons? Do they recycle them into pet food? Ritually burn them and throw the ashes in the Ganges? Maybe they give them to the aliens as trophies. ‘Look at the shit we can talk people into.’“
The waitress bought our espressos and Valentina drank hers looking out the window. Coffee is another good prop for when you run out of words.
A light snow dusted the street, the first hint of what was supposed to be an especially cold winter. Valentina was lost somewhere in her head. I took the moment to do a light meditation. I went through the number patterns we recited before heading out into the veer. A Fibonacci sequence. Cubes. Twin primes. The steady sequences calmed my guest, who’d grown restless from the moment I’d laid eyes on Valentina.
She finished her cigarette and dropped the butt into the dregs of her coffee.
“You should have taken me with you,” she said.
“You know I couldn’t.”
“Deep space is a boy’s club. Girls can’t play.”
“You can’t blame me for that. There are basic biological incompatibilities between female neurochemistry and the guests.”
“Are you really sorry?”
“No. It’s just an expression. I don’t feel sorry.”
“Liar. You’re in love with your parasite. It lets you ride your big steel cock through space and call it ‘heroic.’“
“When discussing our alien counterparts, we prefer the term ‘guests.’“
“Fuck you and your guest.”
She stared at my face again. I was wearing dark glasses, old fashioned metal aviators with opaque gray lenses.
“I always wondered if what they said about women’s biology was true or just a story to cover up some deeper, darker secret.
“What kind of secret?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t need to go, would I? I’d still like to go. Even if I died on the way.”
“But you can’t go. Maybe if you were lucky enough to be a transgender. Surgery. Hormone treatments. That sometimes works.”
“Now, you’re making fun of me.”
“Am I? I don’t think so.”
“If I changed myself like that I wouldn’t be me anymore. Then, when I found out your secrets, I still wouldn’t know.”
“There are no secrets. It’s just space up there. Oceans of nothing. Mists of frozen dust. Arcs of fire and curious light.”
“I thought you were blind. Or is that another lie?”
“All cosmonauts are blind. Human eyes and optic nerves are too easily fried by cosmic rays. Giving up our eyes is the beginning of the alteration. Accepting our guests is the end.”
“Then, how do you see?”
“We don’t. Our guests do.”
She leaned forward and tapped the back of my right hand, tracing my tattoos with one of her ragged fingernails.
“Stop talking about yourself in the plural, all right? Try saying ‘I’ occasionally. Saying ‘we’ and ‘our’ makes you sound like an ant in a big colony. You’re not an ant, are you? Just a bug hooked up to an alien hive mind?”
“No. I’m just me.”
“What a relief. You should have told me you were going. You should have asked me to come with you.”
“You couldn’t come with me.”
“But I didn’t get to say that or think it or argue with you about it. You were just gone and then you were dead. Then I sort of died. Then you were alive again and out in space and I was here and still dead.”
“No, you’re not, so stop saying it.”
“Would you like more coffee?”
“Do you fuck, Arkadi?”
My guest twisted uncomfortably inside me.
“Do spacemen fuck? Do you have girlfriends or boyfriends? Do you go to space station whores? Maybe you let your parasite suck your cock out in the void, where no one can see.”
“Yes, we fuck. Some of us. But, some guests are disturbed by sex. They don’t the like biochemical changes we experience, so, it’s not encouraged. But it’s not forbidden.”
“Do you fuck, Arkadi?”
“Sometimes. Not often.”
“Who was the last person you fucked?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You’re lying, aren’t you?”
“Because you don’t want to tell me about her?”
“You must have feelings for her.”
“I don’t have feelings.”
“Then, why won’t you tell me about fucking her?”
“It would be rude and, I believe, painful for you. Just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I don’t have manners.”
“So, you can still tell jokes.”
“I tell the truth. I can’t help if you find that funny.”
Her phone rang. Valentina touched one of her bracelets and a shimmering blue square screen unfolded in the air above her wrist. She frowned and collapsed the phone back into the bracelet.
“Your lover,” I said.
“Love has nothing to do with it.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Do you ever feel lonely? Not out there with the other corpses and aliens, but here, with people who still breathe and fuck.”
“I don’t feel things like loneliness.”
“Bullshit. If you’re still Arkadi, if you’re still remotely human at all, you must feel lonely sometimes.”
“I’m never lonely, but I’m aware of...differences.”
“Maybe it’s the way our guests see.”
“Your guest, Arkadi. Not ours. We’re only talking about you.”
“I can’t quite focus on individuals. We…I…see everything from a great distance, like a wide angle camera lens. Sitting here with you now, I’m also looking at everyone else in the cafe.”
“Do all cosmonauts see like that?”
“In the void, we see a full three hundred and sixty degrees or we don’t see at all. Our guests don’t rely on any one sense more than another. When I’ve gone null and given up control to my guest, it’s not necessary for me to see for weeks at a time.”
“Do you want to fuck me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course you do. It’s exactly your kind of question. Binary. Yes or no. Do you want to fuck me or don’t you?”
“No. Not when you’re irrational.”
“You used to love angry fucking. Fucking was how we apologized, remember?”
“Not really. After the alteration, our memories aren’t entirely intact.”
“But you remember some of it.”
“Good. Then you remember that we were good at it. Do you want to fuck me now?”
“I understand. Later then. We’ll fuck later.”
I took another cigarette from the pack and lit it. I took my time about it, running through the calming number patterns. I thought about leaving the cafe, but during training we’d been taught the importance of politeness. Those who no longer feel pain, must respect the experience of those who are still controlled by it. I considered smiling warmly, but didn’t, afraid that Valentina would think I was mocking her.
“Tell me about space,” she said. “Was it worth abandoning me and killing yourself?”
“It’s not what I thought it would be. It’s not what you think it is.”
“Then what is it?”
“Space is as ordinary as this street or that hotel. Once you’re over the initial shock of it, space is like anywhere else. It’s life. It’s ordinary. Even tedious, at times, but, like life, punctuated with moments of brilliance.”
“Seeing a supernova as it happens. Our guests can see a wider spectrum than humans, so I can see the gamma ray fountains streaming from pulsars.”
“What else? Tell me.”
“Trembling blue stars being born in the Horsehead Nebula. Other intelligent races. The guests are slowly introducing us. I’ve met living machines that find us as strange as we find them. They can’t believe that fragile meat has thrown itself out into space.”
Valentina beamed at me. “And you went off to see all those things without me. You left me on this gray rock to go swimming through the stars and having cocktails with little green men. If you ever loved me, you would have killed me before you left.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“You could kill me now. Would you do that for me? I can’t live here anymore. I hate this place. I hate it so much I can’t taste food anymore. I can’t even see colors. I hate it even more now, listening to you and knowing what’s up there. We could go back to my place. We could fuck and then you could kill me. You’d go back to space and no one would ever know.”
I stood and took some bills from my pocket.
“Do this for me, Arkadi. Kill me. If I was dead, too, I could go with you.”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“I don’t have to go to the deep. You have quarters on one of the space stations, right? I could live there, then I’d be there for you when you came back.”
I dropped a pile of Euros on the table and put my hand on her shoulder, certain it was the proper thing to do. I must have been right because she rested her head on my arm.
“My quarters aren’t very large,” I said. “They’d be even smaller with two.”
“I don’t care.”
“I’ll never love you. I can’t.”
“I don’t care.”
“What would you do when I was gone?”
“I’ll read. I’ll putter. I studied chemistry, so I’ll get a job with one of the research groups. I’ll be a janitor.”
“You know that most of the station crews are like me. Altered. It’s not as bad as deep space up there, but living long term on a station guarantees cancer for unaltered humans. It’s easy enough to clone a heart or a lung, but one speck in your brain and you’ll die.”
“Your brain has survived.”
“You don’t have a guest to eat your tumors.”
“You spacemen are capable of taking care of things. I’ve seen documentaries. Some of you have little gardens in your rooms. Some of you even have pets. Take me with you. I don’t need much. I’ll be your rabbit. Give me lettuce and water and rub my ears every now and then. That’s all I need.”
“I left you once and you hate me for it. Every time I leave you up there, you’ll hate me even more.”
“No. I love you. Do this for me. Maybe one day one of your guests will want to taste a different kind of human host, and I’ll be there and ready. Then, I can go to the stars, too.”
“Then you wouldn’t be you anymore and you’d never learn our secrets.”
“I don’t care.”
“How will you be my rabbit if you’re dead like me?”
“We don’t have to worry about that for a long time. Maybe never. Just take me with you now.”
“I didn’t say it before, but, yes, I want to fuck you.”
“Take me with you.”
“You’re alive. You can’t live with the dead.”
“I hate the living.”
“So do I,” I said and took my hand from her shoulder. “You’re too loud and too ridiculous. How can you even think with all the noise you make? You want to know if I still have any human feelings? This is what I have: I hate you all.”
“I love you, Arkadi.”
I went to the door, turned and said politely, “Goodbye, Valentina.”
She threw her coffee cup, but I was already outside. I kept my gaze forward, but in my panoramic view I could see her through the cafe window, crying and cursing at me.
The tabloids were right. I am the walking dead, a zombie veering the cosmos, sustained by an alien parasite. I’m a monster, but I can refuse to be monstrous. Closing the cafe door, saying the things I did and leaving Valentina with the living was as close to an act of love as I was ever going to get.
I went to the port and rode the great diamond tether to the jump station. There, I found the first freighter heading out beyond Jupiter.
I never went to Earth again.
About the Author
Richard Kadrey is a freelance writer and photographer living in San Francisco. He's the author of dozens of stories, plus five novels, including Metrophage, Butcher Bird and Kamikaze L'Amour. His forthcoming novel, Sandman Slim, will be out in July, 2009, from Eos.
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