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Chapter 18: The Stars are all Dying

Greymore played me his music. Some of the notes were sweet, and some of them just sounded all wrong. There were licks and riffs and the slide of hot strings, and it felt like we were close to good music, but it never added up to a whole song. Maybe it’s something in my acoustics or maybe his tempo needs adjusting, but we never breached the warm façades of the skin we were hoping to leave behind for something greater than the sum of our parts.

We’re still two coders lying on the floor above a bar, Tearcatcher and Rivegan, a hooker’s blanket pulled up to our chins to cover us. Something is different, though. Whether it’s for better or worse, I’m not certain. The geometry of the world is still the same, everything in its proper place and orientation, I’m just not sure how we fit into it now.

Still, I feel exhausted. Not because my body is worn out, but because my mind is. I wonder if Greymore knows how I had to lug my doubt and insecurity up a mountain just to be lying here with him. Being an empathy mirror, he probably does. Perhaps that’s the first barrier two people must breach, and the rest will fall later.

“The Methuselah star,” Greymore says, staring up at the stars painted over the ceiling. Are they from a previous tenant, or did Violette put them there so she has something to look at while her clients make the cushions shake? “That’s what the first drafts call the oldest star in their sky. It’s so dim, you need a star map and celestial goggles to see it. It’s been burning its core for 14 billion years. It’s watched hundreds of billions of younger stars burn out, but Methuselah’s just getting started. I’ll bet he has some stories to tell.”

I’ll bet he’s lonely. I roll away from Greymore and close my eyes. Why is he so much more at peace than me? He should be feeling what I am. I guess the part of his brain that makes him an empathy mirror got switched off post-concert, because I’m getting nothing over here.

“What do you see up there, in the stars?” Greymore asks, tracing his fingers along my back.

“It’s space. What’s there to see?”

“You’re only focusing on what’s not there.”

“There’s nothing else to focus on. That’s why they call it a void.”

“There’s plenty to see. A hunter called Orion, chasing after a lion who answers to the name of Leo. A scorpion.” Greymore takes my hand and draws patterns in the air with my finger, his chin resting on my shoulder. “And over there, the Southern Cross. Do you see it?”

“Uh-huh,” I say, glancing up at the ceiling, before closing my eyes again. Before this, when we would just lie awake in Greymore’s bed, I never wanted to leave. Just the noise from the air traffic outside felt like an unwanted intrusion on the world we had created between the walls of that apartment. Now my ears would welcome the distraction, but there’s none. Even the noise from the bar faded more than an hour ago.

“There could be a thousand parallel universes out there. A thousand different worlds where you and I, a Tearcatcher and a Rivegan, never end up in that synth bar together. To those other copies of me, you’re a dream they can never make real.” Greymore kisses the back of my neck. “You haunt me in every other world. I sensed it the moment I first saw you. I owe it to the rest of them to get this right. Just tell me what I did wrong, and I’ll fix it.”

“Nothing. It’s not your fault.” I open my eyes and run my fingers along his ear. “That thing we just did, it’s the axis around which the world of first drafts spins. I’ve devoted so much of my thoughts to it. I just imagined it would be more. Maybe Desiree was right about coders. Not Desiree the imaginary doll, the real one. She said we’re all just replicas of the original pattern. Maybe the part of us that can feel divine things has faded too much.”

“I’m sorry about what happened to your sister, but she’s wrong. We’re just as real as they are. Even the first drafts can’t get it right every time.”

“You would have liked her, Desiree. Or maybe you fancy Darien.”

“I fancy you.”

“Come one, all the first drafts want to make music with Darien.” I fold my hands in front of me and bat my eyes, lowering my voice to Darien’s breathy tone. “I hear you’re quite a skilled painter, Greymore. Would you like to paint me some time, Greymore? In the nude, I mean.”

“It would be a pleasure,” he says, giving me a quarter-smile, which for Greymore is not an insignificant thing.

I squeeze his earlobe and give his chest a slap. “You’re terrible.” Greymore rolls away from me and coughs, which is odd, because coders rarely cough, our afferent nerves having found a more efficient way to expel foreign particles from the lungs. “Greymore?”

“I just need a drink of water.” He covers his mouth and rushes out of the room, his shoulders twitching up and down. I fold the blanket around me and follow him into the bathroom. He’s doubled over the sink, the contraction of muscles in his respiratory system making small dents in his back. “I’m fine, I’ll just be a minute.”

I creep up behind him and gaze over his shoulder – blood drips from his mouth, turning the water red as it swirls around the basin. “You’re coughing blood. How long have you had symptoms?”

“It’s nothing to worry over.” Greymore cleans his mouth and winks at me in the mirror. “I have a stronger immune system than the first drafts. I’m not infected like them. I’m already getting better.”

A second later, he grips the edge of the sink and pitches backwards. I hold my arms out, slowing his descent, and we both topple to the floor.

What do I see up in the stars, Greymore asked me. What I see is the particle afterbirth of a relentless storm. One that will eventually blow itself out. It all started with a speck tinier than a proton, and from there, the Universe hasn’t stopped expanding, and never will. Not until there’s nothing left but the ashes of dead stars and the skeletons of cold planets. Beyond that, the dead matter will eventually cave into black holes, which, in turn, will crumble into stray particles that will continue to decay forever. I didn’t have the heart to tell him at the time, but that’s what I see.

Greymore died as soon as he was stuck with that injector in the train tunnel. As soon as I stuck him, I mean to say, because there’s no getting around the fact that I’m the one who killed him. Like a star that burned out long ago, it just took some time for the image to reach my eyes. Contaminated Tearcatcher DNA is destroying him from the outside in, and it won’t be long before he looks like one of the infected I saw in that hospital ward.

There’s a strange noise coming from the hallway. I lift my head from the kitchen table. There it is again. A thump over the wood beams, followed by a sweeping sound. Like an old man shuffling across the floor with a cane. The sound stops right outside the door. A key twists in the lock, rattling the door handle, and a woman with one broken heel limps into the apartment.

Lip stick, the old fashion kind, is smeared across her cheek, and her coffee-colored hair rests in clumps over her head. Violette, she’s not what I expected at all. I mean, the checkered stockings and the short skirt, yes, but not her face. It’s warmer than I thought it would be. The kind you want to chat with in a public restroom. The kind you might call a friend.

Violette glares at me a moment, then digs her fingers into the sides of her head and rakes her nails across her scalp. “I can’t get rid of them. It’s like they’re burrowing into my skull.” She hobbles past me and grabs a – what do you call it? That thing Greymore made pancakes with? It has a funny name I can’t remember, so I’ll just call it a pancake flipper. Violette scratches the back of her head with the pancake flipper. “Mmm. Ooh, that’s better.”

“I don’t see anything,” I say, pushing myself onto my toes and looking down at her hair.

“Get back! They’re contagious little monsters, I hear.”

“And where do you hear this?”

“They told me.” Violette throws down the pancake flipper and storms into the bathroom. Her hand fires into a drawer and emerges with a shiny pair of scissors. I swipe the scissors from her hand before she can get them to her hair.

“There’s nothing on your head,” I say, studying her face. Her skin has a pinkish tint and her head lolls from side to side, swaying to her own chemical rhythm. “Can you look at me for a minute?”

“Why? You wanna kiss me?” She kicks off her shoes and pokes my shoulder with her finger. “Because ladies cost extra, and I think you know why.”

I switch on the light above us, but her eyes remain unaffected. “Did you take something?”

“Did I take something? Here’s some free advice: never party with a Chinese herb dealer, especially on a holiday.” Violette takes a lock of my hair and holds it beneath her nose. “You’re very pretty, you know. I can see why Greymore’s so taken with you. I’m not sure about this hair color, though. At least it’ll turn grey one day. That’s something to look forward to.”

“Greymore told you about me?”

“Sure, he did. He had to talk to somebody, didn’t he? You burned down his apartment and left him standing in the middle of the street with his heart all busted to pieces,” she says, again jabbing me with her finger. “Greymore deserves better.”

“You’re right.”

“Let me tell you something, sweetheart. The only meaning in this world is what we can grab with our own two hands. Your only loyalty is to your own instincts. Follow them wherever they lead.” She marches out of the bathroom and watches Greymore sleep on the couch. “Look at that beautiful boy. You wanna make it up to him, you should go over there right now and give him the night of his life.”

She pauses a moment to examine me. That music that was supposed to remain between me and Greymore, it feels like the sound is still echoing through my bones, and Violette can hear it. Maybe it’s because she knows more about guitars than perhaps anyone.

“Wait, you already did, didn’t you? Good for you, kid. And here I thought you were a cold little bitch, like the rest of your kind.”

“I’m not cold.”

Violette takes my hand and touches it to her face. “Can you feel my skin? Because I sure as hell can’t. What do you think that means?”

“I need your help,” I say, pulling away my hand. “You have to watch over Greymore while I’m gone.”

“Greymore can take care of himself, he always has.”

I stare down at the ground. “He’s… he’s infected.”

Violette’s face softens for a moment, then immediately tightens again. “Take him back to his own people, that’s the best thing for him. Greymore’s a friend, and I owe him, but I’ve gotta make a living. My customers can’t see him dying here on the couch. It’ll rob the shape from their shorts, if you know what I mean.”

“Please, I can save him, I just need some time.”

“You? What can you do? You’re just a silly girl with silly hair. You were born with everything. Look at you now, standing in a dingy apartment begging for help from the neighborhood bicycle. Your own people don’t even want you around anymore.” Violette steps over to me, bumping me with her chest. “The infected are dying in flocks out there. If there was a way to save them, somebody would have figured it out. You really think you got something no one else does?”

“I have Greymore waiting for me.”

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