Night Out

by Eliza Victoria


They are sitting on the front steps of the Puso Theater, he in a black jacket, a blue tee, pants; Nalla in a sleeveless pink top, a red sarong, a pair of flip-flops. Has to be my age, Nalla thinks, studying him closely. She sees him often enough on the same sidewalks, waiting the night out in the same places with her fellow Fleshies. He works alone, without a Caller, a trick that is hard to pull even if you’re extremely likeable. She has dumped her own Caller just recently, after she caught him cheating on the commissions, and now she is having a hard time, customers just plain ignoring her like she has WD. Too damn many Fleshies, Nalla thinks.

But this one appears to be doing well, she thinks, moving a step lower, sitting next to him. A Zoner Player is clipped on his ear, his black eyes now blue, flickering every now and then with vidlink static.

Two cars streak across the sky, one red and one yellow, like colored balls, air traffic starting to get as congested as land traffic. Maybe thirteen, fourteen, Nalla thinks. Fourteen, tops.

“Oh, for crying out—“ The boy reaches up and unclips the gadget from his ear. His eyes turn black immediately. “Unbelievable,” he mutters.

“Lost Net connection?” Nalla fires up a cigarette and smokes slowly, savoring the taste. She’ll never be able to buy another packet, with the way things are going. “Sucks, huh? Net’s congested around this Area, especially at night.”

He doesn’t reply. Nalla turns her head slightly and sees him staring intently at her.

“You’re smoking,” he says with wonder.

“Yes. Want a stick?”

“That’s bad for the environment.”

Nalla frowns and holds up the packet to the light thrown by the air cars. “The packet says these sticks are treated.”

The boy pauses, then breaks into a small smile. “Treated cigs,” he says. “Those things cost a fortune.”

She laughs. “That Zoner costs more.”

“Darn thing doesn’t work anyway.”

Silence. The boy holds the Zoner loosely in his fist. Now robbed of entertainment he simply stares at the traffic over their heads.

“So,” Nalla says as she exhales the smoke. “Are you waiting for a customer?”

“No,” he replies.

“I am.” She sighs. “He’s late. I think he’s already dumped me.”

“I’m waiting for my boyfriend.”

Nalla takes another drag and nods. A lady in front of them raises her hand, and an air autocab lands in front of her.

“Are you going to marry him?” she asks.

The boy’s expression is bleak. “I don’t know,” he whispers. “Maybe. If he’d like to.”

“Why not? The government will pay for everything once you agree to raise a tube kid.”

He clears his throat. “He’s an Area Lord.”

The Area Lords are the estate owners, the rich entrepreneurs, the bosses.

“Oh.” Nalla laughs. “Excuse me.”

They fall silent again, waiting. A blue air car pulls away from the air traffic and lands on the sidewalk.

“Here’s the customer,” Nalla says.

“And here’s the boyfriend,” says the boy.

Nalla lowers her cigarette. “Are we,” she said, “looking at the same person?”

They are. The boy turns to Nalla, and his eyes widen.

*

The boy stares at Dave for a very long time before screaming, “You idiot. You heartless, sick idiot.”

They are standing behind her, the boy screaming loud enough to attract glances from the pedestrians but not loud enough to actually engage Nalla’s attention.

“You’re smoking.” Nalla glances over her left shoulder and sees Dave looking at her. “That’s bad for the environment.”

“They’re treated.”

“Aren’t you even listening to me?” the boy shouts, looking very distressed. Nalla finds his expression both touching and oddly amusing.

Dave turns to him and sighs. “I have nothing to say to you, Cy.”

Cy. She smokes. Cy. So that’s his name.

“The fuck you don’t!” Cy retorts. “You’ve hurt me and now you want to hurt her, too?”

“Whoa.” Nalla raises her hands. “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”

Dave says, “This isn’t helping.”

“Oh really?” Cy starts to cry. “Then what will, Dave? Tell me what will.”

“You know what,” Nalla says. “If you just chose to fuck girls over guys, you wouldn’t have this problem.”

Dave looks off.

Cy pitches forward and yanks Nalla by the wrist. “You’re not sleeping with her,” he says.

“Then who will?” Nalla asks dryly. Cy looks at her. She couldn’t read his expression. “I’m not joking. I need the money.”

“Die alone,” Cy tells Dave, and pulls Nalla away.

*

Cyan met Jonah weeks before Dave happened. He was inside the Puso, sitting in the center row, shoveling popcorn into his mouth. An old Tagalog film was playing.

Jonah was sitting behind him. Another man was sitting two seats to Cy’s right. It was this other man that Cy had been studying from the corner of his eye. The man was not paying attention to the movie.

Cy continued to watch with growing boredom. One of the leads had just exchanged her virginity for a hamburger. He snorted. The man sitting two seats away leaned a little bit closer and said, “Do you have the time?”

“Fifteen minutes to one,” he replied. The man nodded and thanked him as though the information had saved his life.

A few moments later he leaned again and said, “Is this seat taken?”

“No,” Cy said. He was starting to get annoyed. Maybe I should just jump on the guy and get it over with, he thought.

The man stood up and moved a seat closer to Cy. Onscreen, the actress flapped her skirt and shouted, “Hamburger! Hamburger!”

Cy laughed.

“Hoy.” The man had unzipped his fly, his plump manhood standing erect. “You want to touch it, kid? Come on. Touch it.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Cy and the man glanced over their shoulders. Jonah was glaring at the man.

“Mind your own business,” the man said.

“That’s a good idea,” said Cy, and turned to his customer. “Look,” he said exasperatedly. “I don’t have a Caller, so I can do you at nine-five. Where do you want to go?”

Cy heard a sudden intake of breath, like someone had just been punched.

“You’re a Fleshie?” Jonah said.

Cy rolled his eyes.

“This is unbelievable,” the man said. He shook his head in disbelief and zipped up his fly.

“What?” Cy said. “Wait!” But the man had already stood up and left.

“What is wrong with you?” Cy told Jonah, who wouldn’t look at him. Then realization hit. “You thought I was just an ordinary kid?”

“Oh, God,” Jonah said.

Cy laughed. “You actually thought that?”

“I think I better leave.”

“No, sit down. It’s okay.”

He sat down obediently and covered his face with his hands. “God, this is embarrassing,” he whispered.

Cy smiled. “What’s your name?”

“Jonah. Look, I am really, really—“

“It’s okay. I’m Cyan.”

Jonah seemed to calm down a bit. “Cyan. Hi.”

“Hello.”

“How old are you, Cyan?”

“Thirteen.”

“You’re young.” Jonah said. “You’ve been a Fleshie long?”

“Ever since I got emancipated,” Cy answered. “So, Jonah, you want to do this? I can lower my fee to eight.”

Jonah looked at him.

“I’m in a bad situation here, you know? I have to pay my rent.”

“I’ll pay you,” Jonah said, “but not for that sort of thing. Just talk, I guess. I live within the Area.”

“You know,” Cy said. “I had a customer once who made me dress up like a tiger. And I thought that was weird.” He paused. “Okay.”

Cyan knew at once that Jonah was an Area Lord the moment they boarded his car and pulled up over the city. One so rich he could afford not to work. He owned a penthouse apartment with its own parking pad. They zoomed right into it, fifty floors from the ground, saving them the trouble of riding packed elevator cars.

A Hover Guard with Jonah’s monogram pointed its camera eye at Cyan. “Identify yourself,” it said.

“It’s all right, he’s a guest,” Jonah told it. “Guard the pad.”

The Hover Guard soared away.

“Wow,” Cyan said. “I wish I could afford one of those.”

Jonah’s home was neat and bare. “You want something to drink?” he asked as he shrugged off his jacket. Cy smirked.

“What, you don’t have a bot to do that for you?”

Jonah groaned. “I hate those things. The last one I bought broke down so often I just end up doing what it’s supposed to do.” He folded the jacket in half and slung it on one arm of the couch. “So? Drink?”

“No thanks.” Cyan sank on the couch. Jonah had disappeared into the kitchen. “Jonah? How old are you?”

“How old do you think?”

Cy shrugged. “Nineteen?”

Jonah came back with a cup of coffee. He was smiling. “I’m twenty-five.”

“Really?” Cy sat up. “So you’re a War Orphan.”

The smile faded a little. “Yes.” He sat on a recliner. “My father fought in it.”

“Do you remember how it was like,” Cy said, “before the war?”

“Kids acted like kids,” Jonah said.

Cyan’s eyebrows rose. “Are you married?”

“Was.” He waved a hand. Cyan followed the gesture and saw a row of framed photographs sitting atop a narrow table pushed against the wall behind him. There was a woman in most of the pictures, smiling heartily.

“Did she die?” Cyan asked, standing up to approach the table.

“She sued me for divorce three years ago.”

“So you have a kid.” Cyan picked up a picture showing Jonah and his ex-wife together. They were on a beach, the sea and the sky shining the same radiant blue. Probably taken in Australia, which did not participate in the war. The remaining seas in the country did not look that blue anymore. “I mean, the courts won’t grant a divorce unless you have at least one.”

Then Cyan found him, a little boy in green shorts standing on the same beach.

“His name’s Justin,” Jonah said, watching Cyan as he picked up the photograph. “He chose to be with his mom.” Cy heard him swallow his drink. “Well, I don’t blame him. Maui lets him do anything, maybe even download porn feeds. I’m the strict one, the bad cop. I want him to stay inside the house. But I’m not doing that just to make him miserable. I want Justin to be a kid, for once. I want him to treat me as a parent. I want him to be innocent.”

“So you want your son to be baffled when a guy suddenly sits next to him in the theater and asks him to touch his dick.”

Jonah lowered his eyes, looked away. Cy glanced at him.

“I’m sorry,” Cyan wanted to say, but then thought, Why bother.

“When you’re innocent you feel safe,” Jonah suddenly said. “Like the world makes sense. When you learn something too early it becomes hard for you to be happy.”

Cy wondered if Jonah’s high on something. Then he thought, When was the last time I felt safe?

Cyan turned back to the pictures. In one of them, a younger Jonah held the newborn Justin in his arms. Justin’s eyes were closed and his skin was very pink.

*

Cy has dragged Nalla into a tiny diner. The sky is brighter now, lit up by the air traffic jam.

“I don’t think I understand what is going on,” Nalla says cautiously. The diner is not very clean. The tables are rusty and the cups are chipped; the floor is sticky with spilt coffee. One of the waitresses is a robot, but she’s not very efficient. Everything looks old.

“What’s your name?” The boy is now looking at her. Finally. He’s been staring outside the window through bloodshot eyes for the most of the twenty minutes they’ve been sitting in that booth. He has made a call through his Zoner a while ago, but he didn’t look at her then, either.

“Nalla,” she says. “Cy, right?”

“Cyan,” he says. “Sorry I had to—“

“Look,” Nalla leans forward. “I don’t want to be rude, but I’m sure sooner or later you’re going to cheat on Dave, too, because everybody cheats in this age and time. I think—“

Nalla hears a sharp zing and a whoosh—the sound of a card being swiped, followed by the diner door opening. Cy straightens up as if the sound is a promise and smiles, his face brightening considerably.

A man in shirt and jeans emerges from the street and surveys the place for a second, his gaze sliding over the stools and the waitresses like fluid, dead-tired, like he’s seen this scene too many times and is sick of it, his eyes lingering on the few faces like he knows what he is looking for and where it is but doesn’t want to come to it, yet.  Or maybe it’s just me, Nalla thinks, fighting the urge to light another cigarette. Then the man approaches them, to her surprise, and slides into the booth, sitting next to her.

“Hello, Jonah,” Cyan says.

“Cyan.” The man looks at him, takes a deep breath as if to say something, reconsiders, looks at her. “Hello.”

Nalla stares at him, mouth agape. “Well,” she says. She looks at Cyan. “Someone sure recovers fast.”

“It’s not like that,” Cyan says.

Nalla raises an eyebrow. “Oh, please. You’re rich enough to have a Zoner. Share a little! You into three-ways, sir?”

Jonah shrinks back, looks at Cyan, takes a deep breath.

“It’s not like that,” Cyan says again, but Nalla doesn’t care anymore. She has been insulted.

“You drive away my only hope for pay tonight and now you bring me to the seediest diner you can find just to parade a customer I can’t have in front of me,” she says quickly and softly. “I have to applaud your creativity.”

“Nalla, it’s not—“

“Let me guess,” Nalla says, jutting her chin at Jonah’s direction. “You’re an old customer.”

Jonah shakes his head.

“A former Caller?”

“No.”

“Um, a mentor? Benefactor?” Nalla makes circular gestures with her hands. “Brother?”

“Just a friend,” Jonah says.

“Oh,” she says. “I don’t get it.”

Nobody speaks for a moment. Jonah looks at Nalla as if she were a new species. Nalla hates him already.

Jonah says, “Is there a problem, Cyan? Your call sounded urgent.”

Something in Jonah’s voice sounds concerned but stern, as though he’s annoyed but is just too polite, or too weary, to show it.

Nalla looks at Cyan and sees that he has picked it up, too; it is all over his face.

“Is it money, Cyan?” Jonah says. “Because if it is, I—hello?”

Nalla notices that Jonah also has a Zoner, only he has the smaller, more expensive kind, no larger than an ear plug, Version VX something-or-other, with holo-capabilities and wider range. Jonah’s eyes shine blue, and he starts grinning like a fool. “Of course,” he says. “Of course.” A moment later his eyes turn black again and the grin disappears. “Sorry about that. Justin needs a ride home. Would you like to hop in? We can talk in the Skyscraper.”

“You have a Skyscraper?” Nalla exclaims, unable to contain herself. She slaps Cyan’s hand playfully. “Why do you get all the Area Lords?”

“Justin?” Cyan says almost at the same time.

“Yes.” The grin comes back, and Jonah fights it, unsuccessfully. “I fought for custody.”

“Huh,” Cyan says.

“He saw Maui with a Fleshie and—“

Cyan stares at him. Nalla still cannot make heads nor tails of the conversation. She itches for a cigarette.

Jonah scratches his forehead, refusing to meet Cyan’s eyes. “I didn’t mean it to sound like—“

Cyan lowers his gaze and stares at his folded hands on the tabletop.

“I mean, if you’re going to come with me to Justin’s school, you can’t tell him that you’re—“

“Who is Justin?” says Nalla. But nobody answers.

“Is it money?” Jonah asks again, almost eagerly, like he wantsto redeem himself.

“No, it’s okay,” Cyan says, to Nalla’s disbelief. “I’ll just call again.”

“Here it is anyway,” Jonah says, laying a card on the table. “I have to go get Justin.”

Jonah stands up and walks back to the door. He pauses long enough for a person to change his mind and say wait, but Cyan just waves his hand. Nalla looks out of the window, watching Jonah walk from light to dark to light, his jacket cut into pieces by the glare.

When she turns back to face the table Cyan is already eyeing the card like he wants to burn it.

“Let’s get out of here,” he says. They stand up, and the robot waitress suddenly comes to life, startling the customers sitting on the stools by the counter. “Thank you for coming to,” she starts to say, but something twangs and she slumps over, something that happens all the time, apparently, thinks Nalla, because the human waitresses just walk around her, saying, “Coffee? More coffee?”

*

“You know,” says Cyan, “a customer once told me: ‘Love is lost in this age. People decide to have babies just to fill space, to add to the statistics, and not to fill a longing in themselves. There’s not even lust, because lust requires even a small amount of love, of care, of hope. There is only movement. Friction. Heat. A mere response to nature.’”

They’ve gone back to the Puso Theater, to the steps. Cyan wants Nalla to choose where to go—a bar, a resort, anywhere, he’s sure Jonah’s card can handle anything—but Nalla suddenly feels too exhausted and can’t decide.

“Maybe he’s quoting from a book,” Cyan says. Nalla doesn’t reply.

A neat-looking man with a briefcase approaches them and says, “Uh—“

“Sorry, sir,” says Nalla. “It’s our day-off.”

Oh, the man says voicelessly, and walks away like he has a flight to catch.

“I’m sick, Nalla,” Cyan says.

She sits up. “What?”

“I’m sick,” Cy repeats. “I have Walker’s Disease.”

Walker’s Disease. The deadly WD. In Japan, where it started, they call it AIDS-II.

“You got it from Dave?”

Cy nods.

“Where’d he get it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. He travels. Maybe he went to Tokyo or Taiwan.” Cy smirks. “Danced with somebody.”

Nalla fiddles with the cigarette packet. “Are you doing okay?”

“He knew,” Cy says, not hearing her. “He knew he had it but he still wants to spread it around. What kind of monster would do such a thing?”

Nalla pries the packet open and pulls out a stick.

“I’m just glad I caught him in time,” Cy says, looking at her. “Before—before he—“

Nalla lights up the cigarette and pulls a long, deep drag. She spews the smoke and smiles at him.

“Please,” Cyan says. “Please tell me you didn’t sleep with him.”

Nalla’s smile trembles at the edges. She shakes her head.

Fresh tears roll down Cyan’s face.

“I’m sorry.” Cy takes her free hand in both of his. “Nalla, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay, you know,” she tells him. “I knew this would happen sooner or later.” She pulls her hand away. “Didn’t you?”

A softdrink commercial comes on the Net, and all the windows of the buildings and the the passing cars turn blue, washing the ground with blue. It’s like the city is taking a call on a Zoner Clip, ignoring them.

“So,” Cyan says, sniffling, “have you decided where you want to go?” He brandishes the card in front of her eyes. “This is a gold mine.”

Nalla laughs.

“Come on,” Cyan says, pulling her up and down to the sidewalk.

“Where are we going?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Anywhere.” Cyan looks up at the air cars, his hand poised. He laughs as though the cars have said something funny. “Australia.”

Nalla stands close to him. The commercial ends, and the city regains color so abruptly that Nalla has to shut her eyes for a second.

“Australia sounds good,” Nalla says, opening her eyes, and Cyan smiles at her and raises his hand.

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