My mother mailed me a cube of instant bread, and when it was all swollen and ready I somehow daydreamed my way into consuming its entire length in a sitting. I only knew the loaf had ended when I accidentally bit my own empty hand. Then I got a stomach ache and spent some time supine on the bed, lowing miserably.
I know Oprah teaches us not to try to eat away our troubles, but she only knew that from experience. She had to have touched the sad satisfaction of giving in, too. She had to be intimate with the threat and the promise of the short peace.
Praise her or plug her: I don't care -- I was hungry for more than food. Doing something to scratch that itch wasn't a choice but an inevitable consequence, like gravity's suck.
I fell to the short peace. When the circus was done and my sweat dried I ate a loaf of bread, vomited, then chased it with twelve yellow blueberry muffins, thirty-six yogurt balls of various flavours, an entire sand cake with Nirgalese filling, a bag of frosted cinnamon sticks, two Brown's bars and a self-heating can of angel hair pasta in mushroom cream sauce.
I belched dangerously, then put away a box of after dinner mints and some pretzels and a bunch of slightly shrunken green grapes.
When I couldn't fit anything more inside of me I lay back on my bed and touched myself in a private way while watching the unrated and uncensored inner circle fan club recut of the Revengineers episode where Terrianna Sue Poptarts gets kidnapped by evil Texamerican pornography barons who make her toil for her freedom in the most lawless catacombs of the Old Moon...
When I woke up it was nearly third shift.
I washed my hands and face and brushed my teeth, then washed my hands again. I changed my clothes, eye on the clock. I ate a bowl of oatmeal and then stretched until it hurt then washed my hands again.
In the lobby I met the paratroopers. They were keener to chat than usual, rushing right up to corner me at the bottom of the stairs. They were falling over themselves to ask me whether I'd performed oral sex upon Admiral Phong or merely let him plug me anally. "I'm not even a homosex," I stammered, blushing.
"So explain to me," drawled Angiers with a simultaneous smile and glower, "why it is that the admiral dedicated half his motherplugging weekly address to you. Huh, jiggles? What's up with that?"
"What?" I said dumbly. "What do you mean?"
"'We should all be a little bit more like Tim!'" chanted the rest of them in mocking chorus. "How many times did he say that? Ten -- twenty?"
"What?" I said again, blinking.
Angiers continued to parrot Admiral Phong in a lilting, sing-song tone: "'I met a man at the circus, a civilian, who walked with God...one of our encryption geniuses, a man of remarkable clarity of mind.'"
I said, "Um."
"It's un-plugging-believable," grimaced Angiers. "The one day he decides not to be a hard-ass I give my seat to jiggles, so now he's the golden child and I'm still getting paid in tax credits and magic beans."
"I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you."
"Naw," said Angiers, spreading his arms wide. "No hard feelings, chubs. You deserve a little luck like any of us." He flashed me a wide smile and began to nod, then put a hand on my shoulder. "In fact, I've got a killer idea."
"What's the name of that acrobat you were both drooling over? Alana?"
I flinched at hearing her name trampled. "Alaia," I said firmly.
"Why don't I see if I can't hook youse two up for a date?"
"Come on, Angiers. Don't tease me."
"I'm serious. Do you think they'd deny anything to the Admiral's Tim?"
"You'll see, jiggles. I'm going to fix it for you. That would pretty much put me on par with Santa motherplugging Claus, wouldn't it?"
"Well, yeah, I guess so."
Angiers pushed his arm around my shoulders and drew me in almost to his chest, then asked sweetly close to my ear, "So what's your offer? What'll you do for me if I can make this happen?"
"Anything you want."
He licked his lips. "I want that palmtop reader you're always staring at."
"My...reader?" I echoed, feeling it in my pocket. "I don't know, Angiers."
He dropped his arm away and shrugged. "It's up to you. I'm just trying to help out, man."
"It's not like she'd be anything but repulsed by me anyway," I mumbled.
"Yeah," agreed Angiers. "That's the spirit, chubs: look on the bright side."
They laughed and laughed and laughed, patting my back as they parted to slip around me and tromp up the stairs. The back of my neck felt hot and prickly until the last of them had gone. I crossed the field at a shambling rush. The chittering of the birds annoyed me that day, so I hummed the theme from The Revengineers to drown them out.
Do you know what the stupidest thing about birds is? It's the way they fall in love: the male sings and the female is supposed to choose, but that's the rub -- they don't choose at all. If the song the male sings resonates with her she feels compelled to mate with him; if not, not. Do you follow me? She isn't making a decision, she's succumbing to remote control.
If his song is right she has no power to deny her feelings. Like a key fitted to a lock, the tumblers can only turn.
This notion found a certain resonance with me as I banged on the door to Angiers' cabin. It swung open a moment later, Angiers glaring hotly as he clutched a sheet around his waist. He was sweating and winded and Lieutenant Carmichael could be seen over his shoulder lounging naked on his bed. "What?" barked Angiers.
I handed him my reader. "Here," I said quietly.
A smile flickered over his lips. He took the reader wordlessly and closed the door.
I released a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. To no one at all I said, "I hate being a bird."
I worked like a machine. We were in the penultimate stage of packing and the big field test was looming. We came untangled from the error correction team for an hour or so when their network was borked but parity returned after lunch. Quality Barbecue Sauce complained that we couldn't keep up the pace much longer without risking a compromise of [REDACTED]-stream integrity and everyone pretty much stopped working for a few minutes to chime in.
"I hear there might be a deadline jump," reported Shogo Natamo with smarmy satisfaction.
"Forward or back?" asked Hija DeSouza.
"Forward," he replied with a breezy wave. "Apparently the brass are already on their way from Ares and everything's bumped up three weeks to accommodate them."
"Where'd you hear that?" grunted Quality. "That rumour isn't solid."
"Oh, it's solid alright," said Shogo, looking down his nose. "I can't say more, but trust me, Terran: I have a line."
"We can't go faster," claimed Fast Annie. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm fully optimized. Project my curves ahead -- it can't happen three weeks sooner without bending spacetime a new keister vent."
"Isn't that what we're kind of doing anyway?" I ventured.
"There's a big difference between a controlled and an uncontrolled stanza unfolding," snapped John Chew. "If the product fizzles they'll probably shut us down, no matter what the King says. Our young majesty can only push so hard against the Zorannic Regency. It's a crap-tornado between them on Ares right now."
Politics bores me so I tuned out at that point and went back to work, weaving the day's cypher into each new branch of the decision tree I was simulating for the [REDACTED] aggregation sequence. I can lose myself in the math without much effort, and thereby get a thousand times further from the mangy world than I even could with The Revengineers.
Even if it were a two-parter.
Thinking about that made me jones to watch an episode, but I couldn't. On the train ride back to the contractor hostel I watched the murk smear by outside and fantasized about cool things I could say to someone as beautiful and talented as Alaia if I ever got to actually meet her and I wasn't so gross and nervous.
To look on the bright side, I anticipated getting my reader back once Angiers failed to arrange the date he'd promised. I mean, how could he succeed?
"How could I fail?" he asked me with a jaunty grin, leaning against the jamb of my cabin. "You didn't doubt me, did you, jiggles?"
"No," I claimed.
He held up a glossy red thoroughfare pass. "Have you got anything to watch on that reader of mine besides the motherplugging Revengineers and fat girl porn?"
"Damn," he muttered, then threw the pass into my cabin anyway. "Whatever. You'd better hurry. Get your ass to the gala at Central, then find the lady and tell her your name. She'll be expecting you."
"Right-motherplugging-now, fatbags. Move!"
"Thanks, Angiers. You're really a good pal. I totally appreciate it."
"It's do or die. The clock's ticking. Hup-hup-hup!"
Taking Fast Annie's spirit as my golden calf I drilled myself through the world's fastest shave and shower, operating with robotic efficiency inspired by my quivering mammal heart. I put on my dress suit which was rank with stuffy closet smell until the fabric detected enough motion to conclude it was in use and start scrubbing the fibres. In the moments before they were done I caught a whiff of the bland catering that had followed my sister's funeral.
(I still miss her.)
I sprayed on a cloud of cologne. It was the same I'd worn to graduation, on the day they asked me to try out for Titan.
(My sister was still alive then. She said, "Don't go.")
I caught the World Train to Central, zipping around the equator and deep into the heart of Titan's most distinguished quarter. Central is the only district where overcrowding is a problem, and thus it is the only district to expand vertically -- Central's famous fingers are inhabited spires that actually rise right through the top of the domes and into the thick, orange atmospheric ocean. Our world's most important men and women lived there, above and beyond what to most of us is the sky, streak-stained and welded at the seams.
In deference to military heritage, the towers' sides were studded with missile batteries, their dormant mouths dripping ethane from the night's rains.
My pass led me to a luxury elevator at the base of one of the spires to queue on a terrace nestled up against the top of the dome, the air kept fresh by the slow beat of giant silver fans. I loitered at the rail, looking over the densely packed labyrinthine buildings of Central connected by a glittering cobwebbing of causeways and bridges.
A couple of birds flew by below, chasing one another. They swooped and circled, disappearing under a crowded pedway.
I was tapped on the shoulder. "Sir, will you riding with us to East Spire tonight?"
I turned to see the plastic face of a simple courtesy robot, his shoulders decorated by gold-piped epaulettes. I said, "Um, yes."
"Sir, your car has arrived. It's time to embark."
"Sir, this way please."
The elevator was shaped like a doughnut. It was appointed around the edges with plush crimson couches, serviced around the middle by an automaton-manned bar. I asked my escort how long the ride would take. "Sir, six minutes," said the courtesy robot. "Would you care for an appetizer or aperitif, sir?"
I ordered one of each and then plopped down on a couch. "Six minutes," I said to myself, smiling at the absurdity.
One robot brought my snack and another my drink. They moved on to distribute other orders to little clumps of admiralty or clusters of commercial princes, their susurrusing conversations lost as the car began its humming climb.
We passed through the roof, and then we were all cast in the soft, ruddy light that filtered down through Titan's haze. The admirals' whites turned salmon.
I chewed my spicy samosa mechanically, chased it with Pastis.
As the car slowed I triple-checked that I had no crumbs on me, cleared my throat over and over until people were staring at me, then kept my head low and joined the shuffling line at the parting doors. "Sir, thank you for riding with us," said one of the courtesy robots.
I waved vaguely.
And then I was there, like a pretty but humble girl in a fairy tale, walking into the ball. I craned my head to take in the chandeliers, stared like an idiot at the very important people of all stripes scattered throughout the hall, my mouth falling agog at the sight of half-naked models slithering at the arms of half-dead dignitaries. Ambassadors laughed loudly and socially, forming little rings with circus performers at their cores, on the spot and quizzed or flattered, seeding future anecdotes live and apparently effortlessly.
Admiral Phong spotted me across the room and raised his glass, waving me over.
"Good to see you, son," he said. "I'm surprised you're here."
"Sir, I got a pass, sir."
"Attaboy. The hard work pays off, doesn't it?"
"I bet you're hurting to see that Alaia thing, aren't you?"
"Um, yessir, sir."
"Right over there."
I followed his point, panning across the room until I saw a group of admirers part to show the graceful, demure artist at their core. Our eyes met. She excused herself and pressed between two of her circle to close the distance between us. My heart started to beat harder, a rumble clouding my hearing.
"Admiral," she smiled, her golden hair flashing.
The admiral nodded. "Have you met young Timothy? He's overcome a glandular condition to become one of our top active number engineers."
"Charmed, I'm sure," she said, batting her lashes at me.
"Hi," I squeaked.
She led me on a weaving course from one hall to the next, past another bar, through a mirrored corridor and then into a wide, high-ceilinged suite with a bank of windows looking out over the hazy turtle backs of Titan's domes. The sun was setting, discernible as a dim, blurry point melting into the red, smoky horizon.
There was an ice bucket with champagne, a mahogany bowl of fresh fruit, a hot tub shaped like the Marsgo ideogram for fortune.
"Did you enjoy the show?" asked Alaia, her brow raised. She unfastened a bun, letting her hair fall around her shoulders to cover a freckle I'd been fixating on.
"Yes," I said quickly, looking away to the windows. "Um yes, it was amazing. How long have you been at it? That is, how long have you been an acrobat, or artist?"
"Three years," she said, her cheeks dimpling.
"Only three years? That's incredible. I would've thought you'd have to practice for like your whole life. Wow. What did you used to do?"
I smiled nervously, my hands screwed up with each other. I looked down. "Listen, this is probably wasting your time and everything. I know there's a lot of really important people out there you could be talking to. So I appreciate this. I mean, your taking the time to let me visit you. I just wanted to say, um, to your face..."
"I just wanted to say that I think you're an amazing performer. When you were, um out there, I couldn't look away. It was like a food my eyes had to eat. I...and I guess I couldn't just let that feeling happen without saying thanks. So...thanks -- Alaia."
When I looked up she was still looking at me, her expression sweet and rapt. "I saw you at the show," she said.
"You saw me?"
"I saw you in the audience. I saw you watching."
I shivered, and then paled. "Of course, because I'm so big. I guess I must stand out, even from that distance."
"I saw you with Admiral Phong. I was apprised of his seat, so I could have a smile just for him."
To this I simply continued to smile stupidly. No words would come to me. My mouth felt as if it were full of cotton. I was dizzy. I was useless. Her serene face seemed to shrink and grow, to warp in my confused sight. I wanted to run away. "Okay, so," I said, "thanks again. I just think you're great."
"Why don't we have a drink?"
I blinked. "I'd like some water. Um, that's dumb. I like champagne too, I've just got a dry mouth."
A courtesy robot stepped out of its niche and poured for us two steaming flutes of champagne and then handed me a glass of ice water, too. "That's not what I...oh, forget it," I mumbled. "Stupid robot. Why'd it do that?"
"It's trying to interpret the best way to address your needs," said Alaia. "It isn't always easy."
"I guess I should've been more clear," I admitted, shrugging sheepishly. I alternately sipped my water and my champagne. "Yummy."
She traced her finger around the top of her glass. "Do you live inside a dome here? Do you ever miss the sky, Timothy?"
"I do, but not really. The sky here's too weird, you know?"
She pursed her lips demurely. "Do you enjoy sports, Timothy?"
"Sports?" I frowned uncertainly. "Not really, no. I don't play much because I'm too fat and I'm not really into following the professionals." I coughed. "Do you watch The Revengineers?"
She said, "I don't really know what fat means."
I furrowed my brow, hesitating mid-sip, a frosty glass in either hand. "That's nice of you to say," I told her.
She smiled again, her eyes sparkling. "The Revengineers is the longest running television series in history, isn't that right?"
"Oh yeah," I agreed enthusiastically. "If you want to compare apples to apples, Revengineers has been on longer than The Simpsons and Coronation Street combined. And, of course, it's like a totally different kind of show than those old shows. I mean, The Revengineers pretty much redefined the medium -- the key to which, in my opinion, is the layering of the storylines and the way those layers interact. Do you know what I mean?"
Alaia set down her flute and then sat down on a short sofa. She crossed one long leg over the other, the high split in her elegant dress parting to expose one unblemished, muscular thigh. She patted the space beside her. "Come sit down, Timothy," she said. "Tell me more."
I took a deep breath and followed her, squeezing in beside her on the sofa. "I'm squashing you," I said, wriggling awkwardly and holding out my arms as I continued to carry both glasses.
"I don't mind," she claimed.
"You're being really nice to me," I observed. "Everybody's being really nice to me lately. It's nice."
"You have a great ability to express yourself," said Alaia pleasantly.
"Do you really think the course of televisual theatre was changed forever by The Revengineers phenomenon, Timothy?" she asked brightly, tilting her head with open curiosity.
"Um, yeah," I said, nodding.
"You seem tense."
"Do you want me to rub your shoulders?"
"I couldn't ask you to do that."
"It would be my pleasure. Come now. It won't hurt a bit. Don't be scared."
"I'm not scared."
She reached around me and kneaded the doughy flesh over my shoulders expertly, the gooseflesh at her first touch fading as she drew warm blood up to my skin's surface. I couldn't help but close my eyes. "That feels very nice," I admitted, resting my drinks on my knees.
None of it made sense. The nicer she was to me the more I feared a punchline.
My eyes shot open when I felt her breath against my nose, her lips parting to kiss me. I shook my head and snorted in confusion. Both drinks were spilled. I gasped at my suddenly cold lap and Alaia pushed herself back, eyes wide and hurt. "Don't you want to kiss me, Timothy?" she asked. "Am I not pleasing to you?"
My mouth was dry and unresponsive again. "You can't find me attractive. Tell the truth."
"Why not?" she said, startling me by suddenly smiling again. She leaned in to touch my arm but I reared back.
"Did somebody tell you I'm important?" I demanded.
Sweetly she cooed, "Every man I'm with is important for the time we have together."
"I'm not that gullible," I claimed. "I don't want to upset you but you have to level with me: Alaia, are you a kind of prostitute or what?"
"No, Timothy," she said, smile uninterrupted. "Of course not. I'm artificial."
"You're what?" I cried.
"I'm a robot, naturally."